TIFF Preview: Jonathan Glazer and Scarlet Johannson team up for “Under the Skin”

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Jonathan Glazer directed two of the most fascinating films of recent years: “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” His new film, “Under the Skin,” will not be showing while I’m at TIFF, but  I could not be more intrigued — reviews have been fascinatingly mixed.

Scarlett Johannson stars as a voracious alien seductress who scours remote highways and backroads for human prey, in this sci-fi thriller from director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”).

Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” have been anticipating “Under the Skin” with a yearning usually reserved for superhero franchises. Based on Michel Faber’s acclaimed novel, the story’s premise is perfectly suited to a director known for compression, focus, and cool shocks.

On England’s lonely back roads, a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson also appearing at the Festival in “Don Jon”) stalks unwitting men. Her identity and her motives unclear, she is simply, and quite literally, a sexual threat. Her eyes deadened but alert, she prowls night streets and deserted locales in a white van, seeking male victims. More could be said about the plot, but it’s best to allow “Under the Skin” to reveal itself. From its arresting first image — a pure, white pinpoint of light — it expands outward to become an increasingly absorbing mystery. It’s also a Rorschach test for everything one might fear about relations between men and women.

Johansson is sometimes cast for her physical sensuality, and Glazer makes ample use of that here. But the film is anything but lascivious. Having directed landmark music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack, he was known as a supreme stylist even before his feature films. Here, he offers shades of Kubrick and Hitchcock in his depiction of sexuality, capturing a cool, predatory impulse rather than simple heat. For that matter, Under the Skin shows little interest in simply arousing the audience, be they enamored of Glazer, fantasy fiction, or Johansson. It proceeds at its own rhythm, accumulating one eerie detail on top of another, serving up sometimes baroque encounters between predator and prey, pushing inevitably towards its disturbing conclusion.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF