Tag Archives: Southside Film Festival 2015

Local Pick: Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer’s third film, Under the Skin, follows Scarlett Johansson as an unearthly creature disguised as nameless woman who prowls the streets of Glasgow, luring male victims into her lair to be swallowed into pools of black viscous matter. The film opens with a Kubrickian composition of creation: a pinhole of light that expands into a celestial and planetary crescendo, before transforming into an eye, blinking and seeing for the first time. Perception is rendered critical here, and Glazer works to create a film that foregrounds a strikingly unemotional gaze.


The film strips the plot of Michel Faber’s debut novel back to an almost wordless dance between Johansson’s stalking predator and her unwitting victims. It is dominated by silences that render the scenes otherworldly to the viewer, and Johansson and her motorbike riding minder seem to communicate without language. At the inception of Johansson’s human form in the opening scene, we hear her finding her voice through repeated nasal articulations. Glazer is careful to ensure she is not invested with a kind of infant-like curiosity here, but rather voices as if testing an instrument. When Johansson does speak in her clipped yet regionless English accent, her voice is as much an alien presence in the buzz of the thick Glaswegian dialect as is her physicality. She coyly asks her victims, ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ and the answer is always fatally affirmative.

Under the Skin plays with the incongruity of Johansson as sex symbol and movie star suddenly hanging around Sauchiehall Street at night, and uses this consciously to construct an unsentimental strangeness. It is bleak and bold in its treatment of the frame as an objective lens, the emotionless eye of Johansson as dangerous seductress. It is through this detachment that the film achieves it goal of creating a world that is acutely depersonalized. My own reaction after viewing the film in the cinema was one of environmental bewilderment; on the walk home, everything that had seemed commonplace was suddenly transmogrified into oddity.

This evisceration of the familiar is bolstered and cemented by Johansson’s remarkable performance. She is supremely blank – all surface, and reactive only in minutia, a dearth where her personality should be. When coupled with the astonishing and haunting score composed by Mica Levi who uses violins to conjure up and cloak the film in an unsettling and eerie tonal shroud, Johansson has never seemed more conflictingly malevolent yet vulnerable.

The scenes in which Johansson ensnares her victims in her lair, silently siren-like with her nude body, become as reverse-births, the men floating in suspended animation in a kind of amniotic fluid that destroys rather than creates. Amongst this complex thematic framework, the film balances the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane. When placed alongside each other, the two generic and tonal aspects of the film – social realism vs. futuristic science fiction – initially seem incompatible. But instead the contrast works with startling success by having the effect of amplifying one another.

While much of the film’s first half is concerned with this cycle of hunt-lure-kill, as it moves forward we realize at its heart it is about the acquisition of empathy. We gradually witness Johansson’s character begin to develop morality, and an encounter with a man suffering from neurofibromatosis catalyses her into an existential crisis as she is confronted with an urge to be benevolent.   Much like Birth, Glazer’s misunderstood 2004 sophomoric effort, Under the Skin is a film that attempts to bridge the gap between big ontological and philosophical questions about the nature of existence and the definition of humanity, and as Johansson replaces the urban grit for bleak moors and forests, the film dares to ask at what point does a person become human.

Since it premiered in 2013, and as the buzz around it has increased and abated over the past few years, it has drawn its fair share of detractors as well as admirers. I think part of Under the Skin’s divisiveness lies somewhere in its attempt to broach these broad questions of what defines a human through a scheme of juxtaposing the familiar with the uncanny. Glazer doesn’t create a cinematic space that attempts to answer these questions for the viewer, but rather purposely removes explanation from all aspects (this includes denying the comfort of a clearly stated motivation for Johansson’s culling of lusty men). This is a film that is fundamentally about atmosphere, and Glazer invokes highland mist and deserted high-rises as visual metaphors for the film’s interest in obscurity and uncertainty. Definitely, Under the Skin resists ease, but it will simultaneously draw you in to its erotic and murky blackness.

by Ryan McNab

Watch the trailer for this film here:

Local Pick: Ratcatcher (1999)

Painting a bleak picture of outdated housing estates in Glasgow in the 1970’s, Ratcatcher follows the twelve-year-old James after the drowning of his friend Ryan, an incident in which James seems to be more involved than anyone has noticed. The bin men are on strike and the tenants gradually being moved to better housing, leaving behind the decrepit rat-infested tower blocks. Slowly the world around James changes, as his family wait to be moved on. He finds solace in rare glimpses of nature, as well as his companions; an older girl, Margaret, passive receiver of abuse from the local gang, and younger boy Kenny, steadily losing his young innocence and compassion, in loosely connected scenes showing the lives of those habiting the uninhabitable. It might be the 1970’s, but it’s not a million miles away from the Victorian era, with only outside toilets and beds shared between three in this examination of an almost unbelievable but true social housing policy.

Ratcatcher (1999)

 Despite the perpetual depictions of poverty in the dank, grey, high-rise world of the housing estate, I found the film oddly beautiful. Ramsey’s film is carefully composed around shots teetering on the edge of long, strange silences, contrasted with a gentle humour that creates an eerie, sometimes uncomfortable watch. Opening by a canal, where the young of the estate return throughout the film, nature works its way into the cracks of the inner-city world. The first glimpse of real colour and light comes late to the film, when James escapes on the bus to a corn field, and finally there is blue sky. Children play with the rats that their parents try to escape from, and are fascinated by the lice that inhabit their hair. This might be a portrayal of incredibly difficult living conditions that are far more recent than seems feasible, but it also shows childhood, growing up, and coping with situations you are too young to deal with.

I love the unexpectedly surreal aspects: a pet mouse floating away on a helium balloon; Margaret using one of the many uncollected bin bags as a cushion to enjoy her jam sandwich, enjoying the quiet in this peaceful moment she has found. This occasional playfulness, whilst simultaneously dealing with difficult subjects, is what sets the film away from what it could have been in the hands of a lesser director: a straight depiction of an unkind world through which James leads us. He visits new houses, waiting to be inhabited, their furnishings still covered in plastic sheeting. He tries out the new shiny baths, the shining porcelain toilet not yet plumbed in, into which he joyfully pisses, only to see a puddle slowly appear underneath. This gentle, quiet, creeping humour remains throughout the film, sweetening the toughness, and reminding us that it is just normal life, a boy’s adventures, being shown. And it is also tough. Violence, death, drowning and discontent are inescapable, and in several scenes you really feel like you’re waiting for the worst to happen. This film strikes me as one of the most enjoyably uneasy films to watch, as you are brought out of prolonged calmness with sudden loud noises or shouts.

I watch this film as a stranger, an outsider not just to this world but also to much of Glasgow; to those who remember the housing estates of the seventies it must be an entirely different experience. The characters seem to watch on too, looking through windows, observing their world, and we see their desire to escape, as well as their children’s. The film steers clear of sentimentality, but shows subtle, everyday moments of happiness. This sometimes bizarre and unexpected mix is what charmed me. Slightly dreamlike, we see James’ world, and through this meditation on life in these estates, a representation of what was a normal world for many.

by Henrietta Eagle Wilsher

Watch the film’s trailer here: