In 2003, the Directors Label DVD Series was released which featured the music videos, short films and TV-commercials of three talented young directors; Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. Two years later, a second series was released featuring the work of four other talented directors including Jonathan Glazer. The director created some artistic TV-commercials such as the mesmerizing Guinness Surfer commercial and the Radiohead video ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ shot with an ultra-slow motion science camera producing hauntingly beautiful images of Thom Yorke smashing plates of glass with a hammer and Dobermans on a leash barking at people.
The directors were known for their inventive, witty and artistic videos and commercials. It was only a matter of time, until they would bring their skills to the big screen to become a feature film director.
Their first features – some of them produced in the Hollywood studio system – were as self-willed as their earlier work with original stories, surprising plot twists, and editing techniques and framing of shots often employed in commercials and videos. Jonze made a critically acclaimed directorial debut with ‘Being John Malkovich’, Gondry with ‘Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind’, Glazer with ‘Sexy Beast’.
The only person who hasn’t made a feature film (yet) is perhaps the most radical director of the group: Chris Cunningham. He created the spellbinding, otherworldly video ‘All Is Full Of Love’ that featured Björk in the body of a robot, and disconcerting videos for Aphex Twins and Squarepusher. Madonna approached him to direct the video for her song ‘Frozen’. In an interview printed in the book that comes with the DVD, Cunningham stated that he didn’t like the effect shots. “But the record company and she [Madonna] insisted that I kept those shots in. I decided not to work with a big artist again because those decisions should be mine”.
All the final decisions in ‘Under the Skin’ were made by the director of the film Jonathan Glazer. It’s a daringly original film based on the book by Michel Faber about an extraterrestrial visitor played by Scarlett Johansson who comes to earth and drives around in a white van in the area of Glasgow to hunt for single men. Some of the footage was shot with hidden cameras in the van and the men didn’t know they were filmed, nor that they were talking to Hollywood A-star, Scarlett Johansson, in the suburbs of Glasgow – how alien is that.
The most visually striking scenes of the film are set in a black and white non-descript environment. At the beginning of the film, we see in a wide shot two silhouettes in a sterile white space. The staging and lighting recalls Cunningham’s video “All Is Full Of Love’ or the white room at the end of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. In a backlit scene the alien visitor (Johansson) stands naked over a woman lying on the floor (her predecessor), removes the woman’s clothes and puts them on herself. There is no soundtrack only the sound of the removal of the clothes. When she is fully dressed she discovers something moving on the woman’s body, an ant, that she examines as it walks on the nail of her index finger. A poetic introduction with a miniscule form of life on earth.
Some of the disturbing scenes are set in a black environment where the alien visitor lures the men into a house where they enter a black void. She walks slowly and takes off her clothes whilst the men follow her and undress as well. They are ‘on a promise’ and can’t believe their luck (One of them whispers: “I’m dreaming”). But whilst the alien visitor keeps walking on the black surface the men sink with each step further into a liquid until they disappear. In one of the scenes two victims encounter each other into this black syrupy liquid. They can hardly move their limbs and can’t speak. The scene is very claustrophobic as they are alone, 20,000 leagues under the sea. When one of the man touches the hand of the other man, who’s skin is affected by the liquid, he explodes and his skin changes into a shed snake skin.
These images are accompanied by the wonderful, eerie soundtrack scored by Mica Levi. It starts with squeaking sounds that get on your nerves, tremolos and glissandi played on string instruments influenced by avantgardistic composers György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis.
Halfway through the film the alien visitor starts to develop human feelings. Levi composed more sensitive, delicate electro acoustic music performed by the cellist Oliver Coates who uses guitar foot pedals (on YouTube you can find a live performance of ‘Love’ by Coates).
Coates and Levi are part of a generation of classical trained musicians to whom a distinction between musical genres doesn’t exist and they effortlessly work alongside electronic and pop musicians.
For me, the films that transfixed and moved me the most this year are Matthew Barney’s ‘River of Fundament’ and ‘Under The Skin’. Glazer poured his life into his film and seems to have adopted the first point in Marina Abramovic’s artist’s life Manifesto: “An artist should not compromise for themselves or in regards to the art market.” His film may not everybody’s cup of tea but his work has maintained the same daring spirit like the work he made at the beginning of his career.
Written by Thierry Somers