— Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” isn’t easy to watch. And that’s part of the point.
Not far into the “Sexy Beast” filmmaker’s new drama about an alien in human form, which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend, you see a couple with an 18-month-old child picnicking on a Scottish beach.
When their dog is swept out to sea by stormy waves, the parents and a nearby swimmer try to rescue the pet, but it all ends badly. Into the frame enters a young woman named Laura (played by Scarlett Johansson) who has no interest in a rescue or the suddenly orphaned child. Instead, she walks up to the swimmer, makes sure he’s dead and drags his body away.
“That was a very important scene, to create something that we would respond to as a human being — and she doesn’t,” Glazer said of the very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel, which has taken Glazer a decade to bring to the screen. “The scene shows the gulf between how we see the world and how she doesn’t.”
There’s a reason for that: Laura is a sister from another planet.
She is an alien in human form, trolling through Scotland for prey — typically young men she meets on the road — the way a fisherman might reel in fish. If aliens in popular culture typically collect their quarry with lasers and gravity beams, Laura uses a more time-tested strategy: sex.
Once she meets a man, Laura brings him back to her flat, where in a highly stylized ritual she walks a few paces ahead of her victims, stripping her clothes an article at a time as the men do the same. But for every step the men take, they start submerging into a viscous black liquid, until they are fully engulfed in a black void from which there is no escape.
“Under the Skin,” which is playing consecutively at festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto, easily has been the most divisive narrative feature in this mountain resort. The film, which is looking for a theatrical distributor, has scarcely any dialogue — just a few more words than in Robert Redford’s solo sailing story, “All Is Lost” — and there’s no explanation of where Laura is from or why she does what she does.
“There’s much more to the book in terms of plot and story,” Glazer said.
Opening with an extended sequence that is composed of points of light and abstract objects that eventually become an eye’s iris, “Under the Skin” at times feels more like a work of visual art than a formal motion picture, far more experimental than Glazer’s last film, 2004’s “Birth” with Nicole Kidman.
Yet once you understand how the 48-year-old Glazer shot “Under the Skin,” its narrative issues become easier to fathom.
In many ways, it was shot like a sophisticated and extended episode of “Candid Camera.” Johansson would climb into a van equipped with an array of hidden video cameras, each about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
As she cruised around Glasgow, where the actress was rarely recognized, she would try to persuade strangers to climb in the passenger seat, just as if she were the character she was playing. If the men were willing, they would later be informed that they had unwittingly joined a movie and would be asked to sign a release. The men seen entering the black void were nonprofessionals whom Glazer cast separately.
The point of the subterfuge, Glazer said, was to present the real world as an alien might see it.
“I wanted it to feel like you were witnessing something,” the British director said. “What you are watching is what happened — I wanted her to interfere with the world.”
Over the course of its development, “Under the Skin” was going to star Brad Pitt opposite Laura as an alien love interest, but the independent production wasn’t able to raise enough money to make the film with the “World War Z” star. Even without Pitt, however, Glazer wanted to not lose sight of Laura’s becoming more human during the film.
“The core of the story that I was clearly interested in was her journey — and looking at our world as an alien planet through her eyes,” Glazer said. “What I needed to discover was a filmmaking language — to paint the character with credibility. It’s a tall order to paint an alien in human form.
“The key thing for me — the way I understood it would work — was to shoot her in disguise and use the idea of dropping her into the world and shooting her in a way, with the hidden cameras, that wasn’t calling attention to itself, so we are really photographing behavior.”
The director said that one guiding idea was to shoot “Under the Skin” as if it were a nature documentary.
In one sequence that is both unsettling and compelling, Laura invites into her car a young man whose face is dramatically disfigured. Because she comes from some other world, Laura doesn’t even notice his face, focusing instead on his “beautiful hands.”
Indeed, the entire movie — and Johansson — has no timidity about showing the human body unadorned and unclothed.
“Nudity was very important in the film, but I didn’t want to make the film about Scarlett’s nudity,” Glazer said.
Still, did she mind acting without her clothes for so much of the film?
“How comfortable does she look doing it?” Glazer said.
In a movie filled with unanswerable questions, that one is easy.
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