TELLURIDE, Colo. - The Telluride Film Festival programmers saved Jonathan Glazer's new film "Under the Skin" for the last debut of opening day and at first glance it was a tad perplexing. The 11:45 PM screening time guaranteed that only the most hardcore of cinephiles would be in the audience. Considering that Glazer delivered the most high profile art film since "Holy Motors" that was a very smart move
"Skin" is adapted from Michael Faber's critically acclaimed 2000 novel, but does not provide as much detailed narrative. Glazer, best known for his films "Sexy Beast" and "Birth," has instead fashioned an original piece of cinema that is gorgeous, mesmerizing, heartbreaking, frustrating and pretentious all at the same time. It has some of the most haunting images of the year and features the bravest performance of Scarlett Johansson's career.
The filmmaker begins by departing from Faber's explanation of his main character's origins. Unlike the book, where or when Laura (Johansson) comes from remains to be seen. Is she an alien as in the novel? Or, a being from the future or another dimension? Glazer is letting the audience decide.
We first meet Laura (or "a previous Laura") when one of her motorcycle goons picks up her lifeless body from a darkened hillside in Scotland. In the back of a moving truck a broken Laura is stripped by her replacement who puts on her predecessor's tattered clothes. Our new Laura then methodically gets a new wardrobe and makeup at the local mall as she begins her mission. This first act of the picture finds Laura driving her truck around the urban areas of Scotland seducing men on the street. She coyly convinces them to come back to what they think is her apartment. Instead, Laura hypnotizes them like a Black Widow and they strip down only to walk into a merciless fate in what can only be described as a liquid prison. What happens to her victims at that point is better viewed on screen, but every entrapment has been stunningly realized.
[Editor's note: Making a note on my own review just for those who think they may be learning too much of the plot even if that's not the case. You may want to skip the next three paragraphs and then continue.]
Glazer depicts the routine of Laura failing, changing her mind and succeeding perhaps a few too many times, but it's important to see the human side that appears when the men are speaking to her contrasted with the cold, calculating demeanor she fronts during the rest of her search. At one point we see her inhumanly ignore a young baby orphaned on a secluded beach basically leaving it to die. We see her react in horror to someone else's blood thinking it could be her own. Little moments that show "something" is in there. Things change, however, when she mistakenly trips falling face first onto the sidewalk. Is it a shock to her system? Trauma to her head? All that matters is that it begins to slowly changes her perspective.