Jonathan Glazer: the joy of division

He has made just three films in 14 years – the first was universally praised, the second is a continuing puzzle to most, and now, Glazer latest,Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, is cleaving audiences into impassioned opposing camps

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer attend 'Under The Skin' Photocall during the 70th Venice International Film Festival last September

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer attend 'Under The Skin' Photocall during the 70th Venice International Film Festival last September

Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 12:53

Jonathan Glazer occupies a singular position in the pantheon of British film directors. When wise people draw up lists of contemporary masters, Glazer – also one of the world’s top commercials directors – tends to find his name hovering near the top 10. After all, most everybody loved his 2000 thriller Sexy Beast. Among other achievements, that film managed to reinvent Ben Kingsley’s image. The saintly Gandhi was transformed into a sweary, unpredictable psychopath.

After that, things turned a little peculiar. Released in 2004, the extraordinary Birth – starring Nicole Kidman as a woman convinced her late husband had returned in the body of a young boy – was greeted with a handful of raves and a volley of brickbats. It took nearly a decade for him to deliver his third film. Under the Skin , a triumphantly peculiar science-fiction drama featuring Scarlett Johansson adrift in Glasgow, triggered more division on its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Most critics adored it. But those that hated it, really, really hated it.

“Yeah thank God for that,” he says with apparent sincerity. “You wouldn’t want consensus. You wouldn’t want anybody to say they ‘didn’t mind it’. The reception in Venice was very divisive. I would rather that than indifference.”

He must have been ever so slightly conflicted that so many of the reviews – even the bad ones – described Birth as “underappreciated” or “undervalued”. Where the hell were those writers when the film came out?

“I don’t know. It’s not my role to say: ‘It’s a really good film’. I am lucky enough to do what I have to do. I like it if somebody says they really liked Birth and it meant a great deal to them. But the need to make a decision immediately is a burden. It should be like an album you listen to and at first think, ‘what the hell is this?’, then come to love.”

So, what’s got so many people so riled up (and many more propelled into ecstatic trances) by Under the Skin ? Based very loosely on a Michael Faber novel, the picture follows Johansson – a visiting alien – as she drives about Glasgow, picks up men, drowns them in a lake of oil and then melts them into pulp. Possessor of an enviably sharp eye, Glazer peppers the film with glossy images. But the most striking sections of Under the Skin find Johansson wandering about among genuine citizens of that great Scottish city.

“Once we understood that was the way to do it, we realised it wasn’t about setting up a movie set and having actors pretending to be bus drivers or whatever,” he says. “Once we put her in that world, we need to be undetectable. We need to film from bird hides. We need cameras in a pot of tea. For the scene in a department store, we had a camera in a mop bucket, one in an umbrella and another up a sleeve.”

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