“Under the Skin,” the latest film by visionary English director Jonathan Glazer, is more like his legendary Radiohead music videos than his movies “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.”
Based on a novel by Michel Faber, the unorthodox, existential tale takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, where a strange woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives around town looking for men for some mysterious, nefarious purpose.
To make the movie, Glazer captured both actors and ordinary people on surveillance cameras. If their performance went well, they would be told what was going on and asked for their permission.
“The beautiful thing about filming people like that is that they’re absolutely engaged in the moment,” Glazer says. “You realize that real life is a long way from what we get used to in fiction.”
While a few people recognized Johansson, most did not. “Quite amazing how we got away with it,” says Glazer, who initially did not want a Hollywood star in the role.
But he discovered Johansson to be an asset — and not just in getting the film financed and seen. “Aside from her ability as an actress, her familiarity really does play into the whole idea of this alien on the wrong planet, out of context,” he says.
Apart from Johansson, there’s nothing Hollywood about “Under the Skin.” It’s a mystifying, mesmerizing experience, with vivid impressions, moods and sensations. Its plot must be intuited.
“I like it when people can look and think simultaneously,” says Glazer. “Those are the films I enjoy, when there’s a dialogue going on between the film and the person watching.”
It’s a contrast to Faber’s book, which takes a more straightforward approach.
“It’s a good book, but there are a lot of things about it that I didn’t want to make into a film,” he says. “The film and the book rhyme. They’re spiritually connected, but they’re not the same thing.”
“Under the Skin” is Glazer’s first film in a decade, since 2004’s “Birth. The filmmaker says he used the years wisely.
“After the first impact the book had on me, I wanted to go on a journey with those feelings. If you read the book, you’ll see the distance we traveled,” he says. “You’re checking your watch, and suddenly a year has gone by and your children are growing up. It was a long journey, but I’m relieved that it’s done.”
IF YOU GO
Under the Skin
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Paul Brannigan
Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer
Running time 1 hour, 48 minutes