The contrasting use of formalism and realism in Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin
Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin presents a clear mix between formalism and realism, shown through the use of contrasting techniques from scene to scene. The film as a whole is ambiguous, with the lack of dialogue and strange concept leaving the audience to decipher its meaning by interpreting the actions of the film’s protagonist. Various criticisms on realism and formalism can be applied to Under the Skin to explore the use and effect of both techniques seen throughout the film, such as the likes of Irving Singer and Jean Mitry.
The opening sequence is noticeably stylistic, creating a tense, eerie feel to the strange scenes of what we can assume are set in space. The film begins with a completely black screen which holds for what seems like an extremely long time, in complete silence. This in itself is disconcerting to the audience as it presents nothing to offer us understanding or meaning, it also sets the tone for the tense, ambiguous opening and overall feel of the film. Eventually a small dot of light in the centre of the screen appears as a mechanic drone begins to fade in. As the spec of light gradually increases in size, the industrial sound escalates into chaotic, menacing music with dislocated voices played over the top. The combination of images on screen and the escalating music creates a confusing effect for the audience as it is unclear as to what the images mean at this point, and the music creates a sense of anxiety. The voice sounds almost robotic, giving a sense of the inhuman and presents a sci-fi feel. At the end of the sequence the screen fades to black, then an extreme close-up of an eye is shown, suggesting that the film will be concerned with the human body, as the amount of detail shown makes the shot seem clinical. The emphasis on creative techniques such as a mise-en-scene and sound creates a visually stimulating opening in a very stylistic manner, the use of formalism enables the film to effectively present the idea of space and the inhuman.
Following on from this is another noticeably formalist scene, in which we see the dead body of a woman lain down on the floor of a white room. Scarlett Johansson’s character then proceeds to take the clothes off of the dead body and put them on herself. In this scene there are various techniques such as lack of sound, camera angles and editing used to deliver an unnerving effect on the audience, and to further present some of the themes seen throughout the film, such as the power and vulnerability of the female body, and the meaning of the film’s title. The room that the characters inhabit is purposefully artificial, the starkness and bright white glow of the room, combined with the unflattering nakedness of both characters, again gives a clinical feel. There is no sound in this scene other than the noise of the clothes being taken off of the dead woman’s body, which seems pronounced against the silence. This scene goes on for over 2 minutes, with only close-ups and long shots used to show the methodic process of de-clothing the woman, and emphasising the bareness of their surroundings. The length of this scene and lack of sound increases the sense of unease and confusion created, as there is no dialogue to tell us the meaning of events on screen. This scene also furthers the theme of the human, or in particular, female body, seen throughout the film.
At the end of this scene we see the protagonist take an ant off of the dead woman’s now naked body, and watch it crawl over the skin on her hand. We then get an extreme close-up of the ant’s face, presenting a gruesome image. The attention to detail here gives a sense of exposure, furthered by the stark nakedness of both characters and the white room they are in. The ant seems unnatural in the artificial room, and could connote ideas linking to the films title Under the Skin, as connotations of insects crawling over or under the skin are common. This could represent the unnatural or alien creature that lives underneath the skin of Johansson’s character. Altogether the stylistic techniques used in this scene create a strong sense of unease and present various ideas seen throughout the plot.
The use of realism is seen mainly in the scenes where the protagonist drives in the van in search for her male prey. As she drives, the camera remains inside the vehicle, looking out of the windows at male pedestrians as she drives. The camera pans as she drives giving the effect that we are seeing events from her point of view, sustaining the sense of realism. These shots are held for long periods of time, and Johansson’s acting is subtle, doing nothing out of the ordinary. These scenes are also very quiet, there is no voiceover to tell us the thoughts of the protagonist, or where she is driving to, we have to guess that she is looking for men from the camerawork, which only focuses on male passers-by. The only sound in this scene comes from the low hum of the car, and the same strange mechanical noise heard in the opening sequence, sustaining the eerie sense of threat.
The sense of realism is continued as she drives with her victim in the van. They appear to have generic, ordinary conversations, due to the use of improvisation. The men Scarlett Johansson speaks with in the van are not actors but indeed ordinary men who had no idea they were being filmed at the time (Frazer, 2014). This technique allows the scenes to present a realistic quality, combined with the hidden cameras to present a documentary feel.