Like many other makers of commercials and music videos, Jonathan Glazer learned that you need to get a lot into not much space and time.
“Commercials and videos were all that was available to me,” says Glazer, whose third film, the adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi novel “Under the Skin” opened Friday. He’s sitting in a conference room at the Lenox Hotel, his thick hair disheveled, dressed like a distracted Oxford don or an eccentric genius. “I didn’t get into film school or a TV station, so they were my opportunities. I took them and tried to do my best. I didn’t think, this is only a commercial. I thought, this is a minute of film; what am I going to do with it?”
This knack for condensation, for eliminating the extraneous and leaving only the essential, did not figure largely in his first feature, “Sexy Beast” (2000). “It was wonderfully written and dialogue heavy,” he explains. “My job was to understand where to put the camera. But it was a lesson for me in working with actors and listening to them.”
He was ready for the next step. “I felt the need to explore a more visual language. That was ‘Birth’ (2004). I’m very proud of ‘Birth,’ but it was hated at the time. But that’s OK. I learned that if something is good, it’s not necessarily well received.”
That confidence led to “Under the Skin.” Nine years in the making, it involved a drastic process of elimination, not so much a minimization of exposition as a maximizing of the potential of image, sound, and editing to tell a story. The narrative is not so much told, as shown.
The viewer must work to decipher key words in the gibberish of the surreal opening sequence, or understand the meaning of the close-up of a tiny spider, or ponder the identity of a body found by a motorcyclist who looks like the figure of death in Jean Cocteau’s “Orphée.” The haunting otherworldly score by Mica Levi provides guidance, if you listen closely.
Overtly, little remains of the original source. A beautiful woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a black wig, red lipstick, and a tatty coat, impassive but with perhaps a glint of bemusement, drives a van around Glasgow. She selects men, engages them in conversation, entices them into the van, drives them to a derelict building, and lures them into a black void with a shiny floor. . . She does this again and again, the repetition more ritualistic than repetitious. Who is she? Why does she do it?
‘In our telling all you know is that the aliens want us for something. And we stop there.’
“Quite a lot of it has been eliminated from the book,” Glazer admits. “For example, the book precisely describes what happens to the human beings and why. In our telling all you know is that the aliens want us for something. And we stop there.
“But there is a plot and logic behind it. It’s not a random assembly. For one thing, it’s told from her point of view and if you understand how she feels at any given moment you understand where we are in the story.”
To emphasize that point of view, Glazer employed a semi-documentary method. Many of those encountered by Johansson’s character are real people, unaware that they were being filmed. For hours Johansson would drive around picking up random men, with Glazer and crew hidden in the back of the van filming whatever developed. Kind of like a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, without the comedy.
“We were completely in control and at the same time completely out of control,” Glazer explains. “We set the margins but were very free within them. It’s not like I went in there without a map. You’d be mad if you did that, because the options are just too vast. But sometimes we’d be in that van and filming, and the temptation was intense not to stop — to throw the rest of the script into the bin and see what happened.”
One thing that happens is that the viewer begins to see things as Johansson’s character might — a stranger in a strange land, with ill intent. But how can one feel empathy for a being that is utterly inhuman, one who is, as Glazer puts it, “like a cosmic reality”?
“She’s utterly dispassionate,” he says. “But hating her is like hating the sea because it claims lives, which it does.”
He’s referring to perhaps the most appalling moment in the film, when the alien hunter visits a beach in search of prey. A mini-drama unfolds.
“We see the tragedy of a nice sunny day with a family on the beach and what happens as a result of a dog going out too far to fetch a ball,” Glazer says. “Like us, she sees love and fearlessness, self-sacrifice, savagery, an abandoned baby. She sees a lot of who we are in that scene. And she doesn’t care. We’re making a portrait of an alien. And we think we can never have empathy with that character.”
And for a while we don’t. But then a transformation occurs.
“Somehow we switch gears,” says Glazer. “How does that happen? It’s in the choice and construction of events. There’s a drift, a curiosity that creeps into her. Up until then she hasn’t taken her eye off her targets for a moment. But in the scene that follows immediately after the beach scene, when she’s waiting at a traffic light, there’s a child crying. And she’s trying to locate that sound. The fact that she’s looking for the sound, subtly, subconsciously, arouses a residue of memory. And, maybe, curiosity. That’s the beginning of the drift toward a human impulse. And maybe why we empathize with her despite what she’s done. We’re recognizing things in her that we see in ourselves.”
The price of that shift is to become neither alien nor human. The end of the film involves a surreal image evoking Hamlet’s scene with the gravedigger, the myth of Narcissus, a painting by Casper David Friedrich, and perhaps a variation on Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
“I think it’s a happy ending, actually,” says Glazer. “In a horrible kind of way.”Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.