Under The Skin (15)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Walter Campbell (screenplay) and Michel Faber (novel)
On general release from 14th March, 2014

Reviewed by Nick Daly

Red-lipped, black-wigged and fur coat-adorning; Scarlett Johansson’s striking appearance in Under The Skin evokes modern Indie icons such as Ryan Gosling’s similarly fashion-conscious character in cult film Drive. Both films also begin with a particular focus on driving, but that’s where the comparisons halt, as while Ryan is aimless in his car seat, Scarlett has a very clear mission.

Scarlett stalks the city of Glasgow, eyeing every form of man its streets are offering, halting her white transit van for ‘directions’, to offer ‘lifts’, before actively seducing her new passenger until they’re thoroughly primed for what they presume to be intercourse, her charming, sensuous demeanor when in this position eerily contrasted with the cold, disconnected gaze she possesses when the passenger seat is empty. These scenes pulsate with an atmosphere that is electric, and infused with Mica Levi’s hypnotic score, they create a captivating experience that ensures every inch of the frame is saturated with dread, and suitably so, since Scarlett is about to lure her victim into a particularly horrifying situation.

Invited back to ‘her place’, the men, fully nude and entranced by an increasingly nude Scarlett, sink deeper and deeper until completely swallowed by a liquid floor, to a space where body horror is explored in it’s most stylish but revolting form; their empty skin left contorting distressingly in mystic waters; their liquidized insides left to stream grotesquely into unknown portals to which the audience is denied further access. This is the enigmatic quality of the science fiction elements in Under The Skin, where even the introduction to Scarlett’s nameless, murderous entity in the films opening sequence is treated more as a perplexingly surreal art piece. The minimalist aspects extending to the reaches of all-encompassing black or white spaces where the science fiction sequences exclusively take place, a concept that teeters dangerously between appearing either low budget or the desired ambiguous approach. Evidently, Under The Skin isn’t concerned with expanding its science fiction elements and creating new worlds, it’s simply, as the viewer will soon discover, too interested in this world.

Under The Skin is intent on exploring the nature of our existence, to the degree where the viewer, subjected to the graphic body degeneration in Scarlett’s killings, is forced to muse the fabric of their very being. Coincidentally, it also explores it in much more relatable and accessible terms, as we view mundane, commonplace scenarios that, through the vacant, detached eyes of Scarlett, become something strangely off-balance and otherworldly; a walk through a heavily-crowded shopping centre, where the phrase “shopping centres are cemeteries for living people” has never felt more apparent, proving to be the most effective. To emphasize this, hidden cameras are applied as an inspired filmmaking technique that add a delicious further layer of eeriness to the proceedings; authentic citizens blending seamlessly with acting roles and, more impressively, the harmonious marriage of realism and surrealism thanks to sublime direction. The result is the human race rarely appearing so bizarre on film, supplying a welcome antidote to viewers who have ever believed themselves to be an outsider in society, or even their own skin, or are simply exhausted by their own particular worldview and wish to seek refuge in seeing the world as a completely new, alien environment.

Scarlett, meanwhile, reacts to her alien environment with complete bewilderment, experiencing all facets of modern society from the amusing predicament of being hijacked by a group of drunken women and hauled to a club, to an oddly touching interaction with a disfigured man; odd because her alluring maneuvers for a killing are simultaneously an unknowing kindness and respect to a person, another ‘alien’ of the world, who rarely receives it. In a departure from the film’s bleak tone, these encounters culminate in an artful montage of social interactions that suggest a celebration of the human spirit; Scarlett’s mystified gaze fading softly into the centre of it, observing with a growing awareness at the party to which she isn’t invited.

This developing sense of consciousness signals an intriguing and compelling turn of the narrative. That is until Scarlett, whose existence is the sole plot, revolts against her existence to drift aimlessly through the Scottish highlands, discarding the narrative and any remains of its captivation in the process. She also seemingly abandons the director, who just an hour earlier was deriving fascination from a Glaswegian shopping centre and was apparently capable of anything, is now adopting a painfully meandering approach, mutating a film about life itself into something inexcusably lifeless; it’s dynamic energy, like the streets of Glasgow from the Glencoe hilltops, now a distant memory. Without the armor of a plot, plus the addition of being steeped in tedium, Under The Skin’s basic premise is now exposed to scrutiny and ridicule, and its overfamiliar scenario of a female alien seductress bewildered by planet earth, that’s void of even a fresh or interesting interpretation, is fully unearthed.

Amongst this threadbare narrative, however, some fragile structures do stand; the film, in addition to being a mirror on society, is essentially a mirror onto itself, with Scarlett, once the street-stalking, white transit van-riding hunter, inevitably becoming the hunted. Demonstrated simply by her encounters with just two men, who both desire her body for equal purposes but with radically different approaches, one exhibiting the best in humanity and one depicting the worst; an amplified, more fundamental adaptation of her incidents in Glasgow. Her sexual being, once exploited as a weapon for lure and capture, is fulfilling its true purpose, provoking a sexual awakening that marks the welcome return of Mica Levi’s mesmerizing score, gratefully not left behind in Glasgow, heightening the sunken narrative to defiantly prove itself to be the films strongest asset. This event propels the film’s final act to take place in a surrounding similar films have retreated before, a desolate woodland area where Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road have reveled in their similarly fundamental topics amongst the most pure, natural place on earth.

Together with Spike Jonze’s Her, this year is proving to be a welcome indie-flavoured resurgence in Scarlett’s recent mainstream career. The two roles, both identical yet opposite in their contrasting explorations of the same premise, display Scarlett, exclusively a voice in Her and essentially a mute in Under The Skin, at both her finest and weakest; the distinct emotive quality of her voice injecting life into Her whilst her actual body remaining utterly spiritless throughout Under The Skin. Indeed, there are genius aspects to her casting, with the magnitude of her celebrity status lending itself hugely to the role, the simple notion of her fingering through a rail of fur coats in Glasgow’s Miss Selfridge store possessing an alien quality in itself before she has even begun to act. There’s also the certainty that any form of being wishing to simply seduce would, of course, inhabit the body of, according to western media, the most desirable woman on the planet. These novelty factors thrive and inspire in the films initial premise, but as the narrative evolves into something resembling an acute character study, they troublingly remain firmly on-screen, with Scarlett failing to satisfy the roles demand of obtaining more behind the eyes, unable to possess the earth-shattering presence that the nature of the narrative heavily depends upon, her ‘A-list star doing naked, arty film’ tag remaining securely intact throughout. The result is, with the complexity of Scarlett’s existential dilemma thoroughly unconvincing, saddening depthless and surface-level, ironic for a film entitled Under The Skin.

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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Jeremy Hawthorn on 3rd April, 2014 at 16:10
This is of course the same Scarlett Johansson who resigned (before she was pushed) from being an ambassador for Oxfam. Apparently she prefers to be an advertiser for Sodastream, a drinks outfit that manufactures in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. Oxfam pulled her up on it, so she walked out on her charity commitment. So much for her 'indie flavour'.

Comment left by Grace on 3rd September, 2014 at 9:43
Excuse me Jeremy, but the film is being discussed here not her fucking charity work. Excellent review and a good read.