Under the Skin is not a movie for the casual viewer. This is not to imply the film is only for those that devour the highest of highbrow sites for ten-thousand word pieces on early Werner Herzog works. What is meant is that the new release by Jonathan Glazer (Birth) is meant to be engaged with. There are films that give an audience an easy time; sit back and enjoy the thrills/laughs/horrors/drama. Then there are movies like this, which require the viewer to meet the filmmaker halfway and personally engage with the material.
Glazer’s film is a loose adaptation of the Michael Faber book, co-written by Walter Campbell. Its plot is easy to describe and says nothing of the movie itself. Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed being, seemingly alien nature. She is introduced after a man on a motorcycle brings her the unconscious body of a woman. Scarlett takes her clothes and dons them in her ventures into the nightlife of Scotland. She drives around the city, chatting up the various men she encounters, always from the confines of her car. She pretends to be lost and asks them all for directions, then prying the men for personal details. Some have wives, lovers or friends to go see. Some don’t.
The latter get into Scarlett’s car, followed by a trip to her home.
For the first hour or so, that’s the story of Under the Skin. Scarlett seduces these men, having to do a little more every time to do so, taking off a bit more clothing which each fellow. The men follow Scarlett into a room of nothingness, where all is black but the two individuals. What proceeds is simple and horrific. The routine repeats until an element of the cycle is broken, leading Scarlett’s character/creature/something to try and figure out something more complicated about her nature.
The film is an utter stunner. There has been a lot of hyperbole thrown around about the picture and Glazer in particular, with the word of the moment being Kubrick, that holiest of holies. To compare a director’s eye for cinema to Kubrick is silly, if not easy, accurate and necessary. Glazer’s vision in Under the Skin certainly calls to mind the famous filmmaker, as the tone of the picture is cold and unnerving, all while displaying a series of spectacular images. Glazer’s opening scene is full of them, almost immediately daring the viewer to look at a blinding light emanating from the screen, followed by the eerie evolution of an eye forming amidst the deepest of blacks. Later shots have a knack for nightmares, with one man essentially imploding on a moment’s notice, as if he was balloon of organs collapsing into itself.
Johansson has, frankly, never been better. The movie is from her viewpoint, discovering a new world for her to scare and be scared of in equal amounts. The scene where she finds herself forcibly brought to a rave emits an unearthly tension, as we see Johansson terrified of not being in control, even though as a viewer we know what lethality she can yield. Her confusion and loneliness is conveyed in silence, with a disturbing scene set upon a chaotic beach echoing a creepiness that nevertheless rings as innocent.
But what the hell does all this mean? What do breathtaking visuals, assisted by Daniel Landin (The Uninvited) and a haunting score by Mica Levi add up to if it’s all nonsense? It's there, one merely has to dig. Currently the initial interpretations are varied, if all surrounding the concepts of female sexuality; how women yield it, how men perceive it and how it evolves. There certainly are clues to a female’s first ventures into sex. Johannson’s character parting with more and more of her garments as things progress, needing to increasingly uncover herself as the encounters become deeper. There is the first instance of tender love making as the acts head towards it final stage, before concluding with an ending that is unforgettable.
Under the Skin opens in limited release in Seattle Friday.