Jonathan Glazer's mesmerizing 'Under the Skin' was worth the decade-long wait
Under the Skin A24 Films
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay: Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams and Paul Brannigan
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
In thinking about Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, I can imagine the director taking his thematic cues from the title of his previous film, 2004's Birth. This film begins with a character virtually in her infancy - in regard to her human form, anyway - and moves along on a path of bodily self-discovery.
Of course, the unnamed woman wasn't birthed so much as formed. The film opens in magnificent fashion, with the slow formation of a human eye - set to jittery, clanging violins, Glazer and composer Mica Levi using deliberately unnerving, Kubrickian musical cues. We hear a female voice, learning to vocalize human words. Finally we see her (Scarlett Johansson), an alien from an unknown planet, standing nude and expressionless in an empty white space - it's not a room, exactly; just a bright, empty space - as she takes human form for the first time. (Against the glowing whiteness around her, she's practically a silhouette, the curves of her new body only barely discernible.) The body of a young, dead woman is brought to her, and she quickly removes the woman's clothes and belongings, the last piece of her new identity.
Why the body of a beautiful twentysomething woman? Well, the better to entice her prey, of course. Her objectives are never entirely clear, nor many of the details regarding her true nature. But we do know she spends most of her time coaxing single young men in Glastonbury into her van, drawing them into an abandoned space, and stripping their very skin from their bones.
Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin shoot each seduction scene as essentially a dreamlike reverse of the film's opening, with Johansson and her victims enshrouded entirely in black once they move indoors. She walks ahead of them, they slowly follow her. She begins peeling off her clothes, they strip down to nothing - and as the men strip, it seems they hardly realize they're sinking into an inky, jet-black quicksand that will soon relieve them of their lives, and their skins.
She's never entirely alone during the process. A fellow alien - in the form of an adult male on a motorcycle - seems to serve both as a bodyguard, and as assurance that she does her "job." (Whatever that job actually is.) And for the most part, she does. But as the film moves along she becomes conscious of her own agency, and of her body. Having taken advantage of her humanity, and of her appearance, she begins to observe people more closely. She even takes sympathy on one of her marks.
She tries learning how to eat, how to have sex, how to be alone, how to be human. Most of this is relatively wordless, her experience of the world unfolding as a strange, alienating sensory experience. There is, perhaps inevitably, a childlike curiosity that sets in on her face (consider the way she looks at her plate when she orders her first human meal), which continues as she progresses through moments of (essentially) adolescence and young adulthood.
If you can criticize anything about the way this all plays out, it's that the metaphors are too obvious. Ditto the very ideas central to the film's examination of gender politics - for one, the way she is both a predator and (given the way each "seduction" scenario plays out) an exemplification (even idealization) of young woman-as-sex object; for another, the film's very title, and the simple fact that the beauty of this woman is, quite literally, only skin deep. Rarely has that cliché been so literal. The various violations or near-violations of the human body that take place throughout the film, even when perpetrated by Johansson's character, naturally serve to remind us, again and again, of the frailty of that human skin, and that human suit she's wearing.
Then again, I'm not sure subtlety is really necessary here. I might be more bothered by their obviousness if Glazer's imagery weren't so audaciously brilliant. In its most dazzling moments, Under the Skin concocts a brand of surrealism that's as eerily nightmarish as it is unequivocally carnal. It's hard to get those seduction sequences out of my head, not because of their inherent eroticism but because of the fluid way the film's sense of realism drifts into a full-fledged dreamscape. (Consider the looks on the men's faces as they follow her into the void - dead calm; they can barely tell they're practically dreaming.)
My biggest problem with the film - at least upon initial viewing - was the way Glazer captures the scenes where she picks up her soon-to-be victims. Shot with a dashboard-mounted camera in a way reminiscent of a hidden-camera or variety show, she parks at the curb and sparks up conversation until finally finding someone single, and with no plans for the evening. It has such a drastically different feel than the rest of the film that it felt like it was a filmmaking decision governed largely by the limited budget, rather than an aesthetic choice. I could be wrong - and further viewings may reconcile those styles a bit better.
Still, something like this - a strange, bold, abstractly feminist film wrapped inside an enigmatic sci-fi tone poem - is cause for celebration. Its metaphors may be obvious, but its nuances are many and varied - including, crucially, the subtle alterations in Johansson's performance as her human experience progresses. Her sexuality is frequently a central component of the roles she plays, but here, her character uses it on her own terms - and the moment that ceases to be the case, when the tables turn, is the film's most terrifying scene (for her and us), and leads to its most haunting image. Under the Skin is full such images; if nothing else, it branded itself permanently on my psyche.