I’ll say this about Under the Skin, I’ve never seen anything like it. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (his first film in nine years, after Birth), it’s a strange configuration of images and sounds, provocative while edging close to tedium. While it was not exactly quickly paced, I was never bored, and instead was kind of in a hypnotic trance.
Scarlett Johansson stars as some sort of alien who is impersonating a human. Under the opening credits we hear her practicing words, and then removing the clothes from a corpse and putting them on. She then heads out into a Scottish city, driving a van and picking up men. Once they are led into her web, they are immersed in some sort of liquid and harvested.
Later, she will grow more curious about her body and want to become human. She feels sorry for one of her potential victims, who is severely disfigured. She wanders into the countryside, pursued by another alien, disguised as a motorcyclist. She tries to eat food, tries to have sex, but it doesn’t work, so she heads deep into the woods.
This is the perfect role for Johansson, since it is almost completely impassive (why would she affect an English accent in Scotland, though? Bad information?) Glazer uses her face to great effect, and of course, the film has stirred some buzz because she is nude for the first time.
Much of the rest of the cast are amateurs. They were shot candidly as Johansson picked them up, and then later told about the film. Some of them are quite bold, as they are depicted nude and with erections (something that is almost never seen in nonpornographic films).
So what to make of this? It is not a film for everyone. There is almost no dialogue (and what there is is almost imperceptible due to heavy Scottish accents). None of the characters are named. Almost everything I wrote about the plot is surmised, as there is no exposition, no narration, no title cards. It’s provocative in that it is a reversal of the way our civilization preys on women–this time, it’s the men who are preyed on. The aliens have it quite right–men will do almost anything for a pretty girl, and these men are led to their doom by their own tumescence pointing ahead of them.
Under the Skin also comments on what it is to be human. Johansson can’t eat or make love, but she does learn emotion, such as empathy, love, and fear. If she wanted to achieve her goal, she succeeded–but at what price?
The film is mesmerizing in its images, shot by Daniel Landin, and music score, by Nica Levi. It’s drawing mostly praise, including some who call it a masterpiece, while others have called it horrible. I lean toward the former, but I’m not sure I would want to see it again. It did get under my skin, as in some ways it’s a very disturbing film.
I find it difficult to assign a grade to something like this, but I’ll give it a try and assign it a B+.