Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson becomes human under a Scottish sky in Jonathan Glazer's compelling adaptation

From the conversations I overhear as I leave Queen's Film Theatre after a preview screening of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's third film, and his first for nigh on a decade, it leaves a lot of people baffled and bemused. During the film, the chap next to me falls asleep. I, on the other hand, am convinced that I have witnessed something rare and magical.

The film starts with a white dot, like the end of transmission or the light at the end of a tunnel. It is an iridescent iris, accompanied by indistinct, guttural murmuring. Circles move over circles, wheels within wheels, like the Biblical descriptions of angels. Something is falling to earth, all right, something is being born. The dot becomes a human eye. A word at last is intelligible. It is 'self'.

We cut to a dark highland road, with a motorcycle slaloming across it. It stops outside a parked van and the rider retrieves the body of a girl from the side of the road and places it in the blackened interior of the van. Inside, now a luminescent white, Scarlett Johansson's nameless protagonist strips the girl and dresses in her clothes. The girl is never seen again.

Based, incredibly loosely, on Michael Faber's book about an alien called Isserley harvesting lonely Scotsmen to be eaten as a delicacy on her home planet, Glazer excises almost all of that content. Instead we are presented with an alien's eye view of contemporary Scotland, as our protagonist goes shopping for fur coats and lipstick, visits shopping malls and, on being cheerily abducted by a hen party, goes clubbing (this last is truly a vision of hell).

Repeated shots of Scarlett Johansson driving a van through the Caledonian rain contain poetry and majesty. There is a certain grimy beauty to these shots juxtaposed with the alien's own environment, especially as all of these scenes are accompanied by Mica Levi's startling score.

When not fashion shopping, she scours the streets looking for lonely men she can chat up (in a convincing English accent) and take back to her 'little place'. This turns out to be a room with a black, liquid floor that consumes her would be paramours. What happens to them we see only once, in what is one of the most visually stunning sequences I've ever seen on film.

Eerie, disturbing and oddly, compelling beautiful, it is an exemplar of what thoughtful science fiction can actually achieve. This isn't explosions or CGI monsters – this is chillingly other.

There is a point at which our alien breaks her contract with the motorcyclist (we don't know what their exact relationship is, or even how many motorcyclists there are) and goes on the run. She appears to have been tainted by humanity and attempts to live like us: she tries to eat a Blackforest gateau, but is immediately sick.

She then attempts a relationship with a man she meets on the bus, but that doesn't end well either. During this final third of the film Johansson barely says a word, as though the sensation of becoming human were in itself unspeakable. The sight of the conspicuously beautiful Johansson eating beans on toast and learning to tap her fingers along to Deacon Blue is an inherently alien one.

A signal appears to have been broken with her sense of self: she forgets how to speak and at one point is unable to remember how to drive. She finds herself adrift in the Scottish highlands, as consumed by the foggy white mists as her victims were by the dark.

Under the Skin is an extraordinary film, as richly compelling and compulsive as any I've seen in recent years. Clearly, as the hisses and boos at the Venice Film Festival prove – as well as the tutting incomprehension at QFT – it isn't for everybody. But if you're looking for a testing, engaging and beautifully realised cinematic experience, this could be the film for you.

Under the Skin runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until March 27.

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