Jonathan Glazer has had a curious career. Mainly a director of music videos and commercials (including that iconic Guinness ad with the crashing waves turning into galloping horses), he has also directed three wildly different feature films. His first was the lurid, blackly comic gangster caper Sexy Beast (2001), in which Ben Kingsley surprised everyone by portraying a terrifying sociopath who makes Ray Winstone tremble in his boots. It was an entertaining, brisk affair, shot with an ad-man’s visual flair, and must also hold the record for most F- and C-words per minute, most of them uttered by Kingsley’s maniacal thug.
Next came Birth in 2004, which must rank as one of the most underrated films of recent years. It was a remarkable vehicle for Nicole Kidman, playing a wealthy Manhattanite who is visited by a young boy claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband. Her initial scepticism gives way to a fervent belief in the child’s extraordinary claim, wreaking havoc on an already frosty family dynamic, which is exquisitely rendered in all its Upper East Side sterility. The film was unfairly panned by many critics, and garnered mild controversy for a scene in which Kidman and the child share a bath. But I appreciated the intriguing premise, and thought that it was poignant and beautifully filmed, with a rather lovely score by Alexandre Desplat and a stunning central performance: just as noteworthy as the bath scene is a long close-up (a full two minutes) of Kidman at the opera, as she grapples with a torrent of emotions.
Almost a decade elapsed before the release of Under the Skin in 2013. A number of my musician colleagues have raved about the film since then, citing both the unsettling atmosphere and Mica Levi’s otherworldly score. There appears to be a distinct split between general critical acclaim and public bafflement; I finally got around to watching it this week, and I have to say I’m on the side of the hoi polloi*. While I appreciate the attempt to play around with sci-fi tropes, the reality is that watching Scarlett Johansson driving around the more unlovely parts of Scotland in a Ford Transit trying to pick up pasty oddballs is about as entertaining as it sounds. Some parts are genuinely hard to watch, notably the scene on a remote beach in which an infant is left alone presumably to starve or freeze to death (I get that it’s supposed to demonstrate the utterly ruthless ‘otherness’ of our sexy alien anti-hero, but it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth). I’m doubtless ignoring some deep symbolism in the film, but it just left me cold. That’s not to say it isn’t bold film-making, of course: I can’t think of another example of a Hollywood A-lister badgering members of the (actual, real-world) public and improvising scenes with them, as Johansson does from behind the wheel of her seduction-wagon.
The score does match the atmosphere well, it’s true, but given the hype surrounding it I was expecting something a bit more interesting from a composer renowned for weird and wonderful sounds. But maybe that’s being unfair. I see that Levi’s score for Jackie has been nominated for an Oscar, so I look forward to catching that at some point soon, although the introductory music is suggesting yet more pitch-bending hijinks (she does seem to like her glissandi: her recent London Sinfonietta commission Signal Before War consisted simply of a slow slide up a solo violin’s G-string, which struck me as being a total cop-out, and maybe a sign that lucrative film scores take priority over small-scale commissions…).
* and yes, that is ‘the hoi polloi’, not ‘hoi polloi’: since it is now firmly established in the English language as a loanword, it should be treated as a unit in itself and require an article. So there.