In a sea of blackness, we are immersed in a universe of circles, lulled towards the escalating tense sound of grinding strings. What looks to be an alignment of several celestial bodies moves across the frame as the strings grow louder and aggressive with intensity. As the alignment shifts into locked position, we also hear human vocal bites layered onto the almost organic collage of sound. And just as the tension could not grow any louder, the shapes blink, forming the center of a single human eye.
Black out. The noise cuts.
Late one evening in the hilly outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland..
A man on a motorcycle stops by a parked van near a darkened cliff, and pulls from it what seems to be the body of a young woman. A moment later, in a vibrant void of white, the dying woman’s clothing is taken by a nude female form, who then journeys to flesh out this new ensemble with items from a downtown mall. From here, the now fully decked out brunette takes control of the van, driving almost aimlessly through the city, seeking men—men without a clue of this woman’s origin, or what omen lies ahead for them.
Told with nearly zero dialogue (save for Johansson’s attempts to pick up non-actors off the street), and often with an almost voyeuristic zeal, Under The Skin is by no means an easy film to describe. Superficially, its premise seems lascivious and perhaps a bit eager to shock. From the outset, we know that our main character is not from any familiar world. But we do know that she requires the male gaze in order to complete what seems to be a singular mission on this planet: to seek male subjects. She mysteriously induces a compulsion in men to follow her to most certain doom. Even in one of the film’s most standout moments, she is so driven to acquire what she needs regardless of circumstance that, at a local beach, she neutralizes a swimmer who was amidst attempting to rescue a couple caught in the harsh waves. She even fails to recognize her fault in orphaning the baby of the lost couple, left crying alone on the windy shore. Nothing else matters. She may resemble one half of our species, but is without morality, nor basic human understanding outside of a compulsion to entice and entrap, making her a most unique audience surrogate.
From this already suspicious premise, one might mistake this as yet another excursion into the seedy underbelly of the urban Euro experience. All the telltale signs of films akin to the works of Von Trier are evident in regards to female protagonists, and their often ill-fated relations with men. However, what Jonathan Glazer(Sexy Beast, Birth) has in store is far more experiential and honest than even the Danish malcontent might consider. Scarlett Johansson’s turn as the mysterious figure in his Under The Skin, is much more than a dive into the darker sides of gender relations. It is an unrelentingly eerie and thoughtful daybreak bad dream where the audience is made an unwitting accomplice to a most unearthly series of fates.
Which seems to be the core concern of the film, the means by which females have been and continue to be viewed and treated in many corners of industrialized society. As we follow the figure’s exploits from the occasional van pickup, to the noisy clubs of downtown, and even to the overcast countryside, each new encounter is a rendition, an example. From drunken pickups, to pitiable meetings with the lesser seen, there is change and response that is accumulating within our lead. It’s in this, that we are as voyeurs, a part of this cycle. One that plays itself out in often languidly paced drives across town, and into her makeshift lair, where the unimaginable seems primed to happen again, and again.
Without the internal mindset hindered by emotional, political, and psychological baggage, we are in the realm of shape as definer. That she is seen as a type that is without fear of perception, her male suitors behave in numerous, often telling ways. Each variation a means of getting closer to another for a great variety of reasons. Through a character that is such a blank slate, we are now in the hands of filmmakers who are unafraid to tackle some of the more subconscious anxieties regarding such relations. As such, the film’s title denotes a dual meaning. With our lead shape’s journey through the film as some form of lifecycle, we are host to what it is to be perceived as a woman of the night. And what she encounters is at times disturbing, beautiful, and then ultimately tragic.
And let’s not go too deep into her motorcycle riding “minders”, who often clean up her occasional messes, and never speak a word. A striking addition of theme as these leather-clad riders are the only other elements in her functional world. Almost as if these are the men of infrastructure, facilitating that the experiment continue unabated.
This is the world that Glazer has fashioned with the confidence of a master. And while much of it does not impact as harshly as some may have declared, there is indeed something defiant & deeply humanist happening here. Johansson’s work here is both revelatory and spooky as a most bizarre, hyper simplified protagonist. Everything conveyed in how she regards the surroundings, her gestures toward strangers, and even her own body is captured in ways that no films dealing with this so-called “alien female” archetype have done before. When she takes home a new specimen, it is portrayed with often a similar shooting and editing style, allowing prey to follow her into darkened, almost anatomical chasms. When she does this, it is a matter of course. Part of a ritual. Often without her reaching full state of undress. And what we do witness of this, is something that defies proper description. While the film may start by taking an angle that might bode negatively regarding women, there is a sharp counterpoint lying in wait. One that sneaks up on viewers as the story draws to an abrupt, painfully beautiful close.
Again, this is not a simple film to parse through. Glazer and company have successfully concocted one seriously nightmarish voyage that doesn’t offer any simple answers. That her life is comprised of reaching out to willing males, even to the detriment of her own identity, is possibly an admonishment of sorts. In an age where subtext is often the text and experimentation is often discouraged, this piece of work feels like a welcome throwback with new toys. Its visuals are often composed to a fault. Environments, while clearly urban and at times rain soaked, are tinged with an almost supernatural gloom. Even when our main character shares dialogue with unaware non-actors, the look is simply haunted. The music and sound design work almost as a stand alone project unto themselves. Mica Levi’s debut score is something of a wonder. Strings and beats often bordering on horror parody, then back into pure dread as rhythms mimic the cadence of a lone windshield wiper. As a whole, I may still be attempting to grasp what was achieved here, but it may just be the work of burdened inspiration. Something very personal had to be unleashed onto the world stage, no matter how discomforting. And even if the film never goes for deep shocks, its reverberations are indeed the kind that stick well beneath the surface long after the lights go up. This is by all accounts a fierce auteur work that could only happen with miraculous funding, and it is a most refreshing miracle at that.
So perhaps Under The Skin works best as a painterly summation of our current sexual impasse. Even as the world becomes more privy than ever regarding our relationships to other physical beings, there is a nagging fear that closeness will never be enough. If Glazer indeed sees the classic heterosexual model as merely one endless series of loops, then perhaps the film posits that perhaps the shape is far from enough to break it.