Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Under the Skin and the “divisive” film

Jonathan Glazer’s latest film really does provoke some extreme reactions

Wed, Feb 26, 2014, 21:27


I hope I’ve hidden the following anecdote in sufficient layers of mystery. If not I apologise to all concerned. A few years ago, a British colleague of mine was contacted by a distribution company and asked about a low-budget film that was just about to go on release. “It’s terrible,” he replied. “Simply awful.” The PR person nodded indulgently and said: “Yes, I know it’s REALLY divisive. Isn’t it?” My pal tried again. “No. It’s not divisive. It’s terrible. Just about everybody says so. That’s the opposite of divisive.” The publicist took this as confirmation of her earlier argument. “Yes, It really is divisive.” I was reminded of a scene from the nautical episode of Black Adder II. The title character points out to Tom Baker — playing an old sea dog — that there seems to be no crew on the ship. “I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.” he says. “Opinion is divided on the subject,” Cap’n Tom replies. “All the other captains say it is. I say it isn’t.”

YouTube Preview Image

Hang on. Where were we? Oh, yes. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin really does seem to be a genuinely divisive film. That is to to say it is possible to sit through the thing in the firm impression that everyone around you is in raptures of delight then emerge to discover that many of them hated its strange guts. Based very loosely on Michael Faber’s novel, the picture stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who wanders about the streets of Glasgow picking up men, transporting them back to a sort of oily lake and then boiling them up for food. This summary doesn’t do much justice to an extraordinary film. There is so much that is odd about it. But its most remarkable coup is to follow Ms Johansson through ordinary sections of Glasgow with hidden cameras. It’s an impressive way of getting at the nature of oddness. People occasionally squint at her — maybe thinking this woman in Primark clothing looks just a little like that one from The Avengers — and then let her pass by unmolested. I won’t go on about the nature of the film as we will be reviewing it here in a few weeks. Let’s just say that it’s an endlessly gripping near-masterpiece that discovers new and surprising ways of addressing the alien.

Then again, what do I know? As I was leaving the screening, I made a sort of “phew” noise to the critic next to me. “Yeah I know,” he said. “She’s want to consider sacking her agent.” But… What… It transpired that about a quarter of the audience felt it was genuinely atrocious. The rest of us thought it quite brilliant. There was a similar split when the picture opened in Venice. Xan Brooks of the Guardian raved in a five-star review. Kaleem Aftab in the Independent called it laughably bad in his one-star notice. Both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter hated it at that event.

As it happens, the reviews ended up skewing markedly towards the positive. But what’s interesting is the tone of the negative notices. There is a sense that some awful con is being foisted on the gullible supporters. You got this a bit with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But even that film’s most vocal supporters admitted the film overreached itself somewhat. Quite a few reviewers (your current correspondent for one) even managed to be properly equivocal about it. A better example might be Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. That film ended up in negative critical space, but those who liked it, really, really liked it. The common factor is a kind of wilful obtuseness. Allow ambiguity and you encourage disagreement.

None of this is bad. It is heartening that people are moved enough to get in proper stand-up fights about a film. Do please let us know if you’ve seen it. You can all experience Under the Skin on March 14th. Even the film’s enemies will probably admit that you should see it.