Under the Skin is a challenging viewing experience. Those attending entirely off the back of “I heard Scarlett Johansson gets naked in this” will find themselves faced with a film more in tune with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than Species. From its opening screen of black inexplicably infiltrated by white lights and rings that eventually coalesce into a human eyeball, Under the Skin tracks in ambiguity and enigma. Make no mistake, however; this is a compelling piece of cinema, an exemplar of arthouse abstruseness, as affecting as it is puzzling.
Director Jonathan Glazer treats the title as a mission statement, delving under the skin as though driving a catheter into a deep vein of something dark and forgotten. Something before the strictures of civilisation, beyond the realm of ration thought. The first act of the film manifests the spurts and pulses of this primal plasma with unnerving urgency, before restricting the flow to a gradual trickle. Early scenes are reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s music video for “Flashing Lights,” an apprehensive presentation of male anxiety of female sexuality, but there’s an almost imperceptible shift soon after, the film’s male gaze transforming to the perspective of our unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson).
Bedecked in fur, tight jeans and black boots, Johansson stalks the streets of Scotland in a spattered white van. She asks for directions from men on the street, these scenes providing the majority of the dialogue in this spare, taciturn film. They also provide one of the few opportunities for Johansson’s implacable mask to slip; she smiles, and flirts … but she never seems quite human. She finds men who are alone, without a family or friends, and she takes them home to an infinite pool of blackness that consumes them irrevocably. Johansson is unreal, in every sense of the word; she genuinely feels like a foreign creature learning how to exist within the skin of another being.
Johansson is an alien, perhaps. Under the Skin never unambiguously resolves this issue, but the sense of alienation is unavoidable. Mica Levi’s unique, unsettling score is largely responsible for creating and maintaining this atmosphere of alienation. Levi’s strings-heavy soundtrack is not so much unnatural as preternatural, as though she’s pushed a record needle into a groove in human flesh and then kept pushing, through musculature and cartilage to a black glassy surface where the needle squeals and screams before the surface cracks and we pull back, horrified.
The surreal, sensational score has ample support from the film around it. The editing is dreamily perfect, creating a dazed, druggy pace, while Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin use a wide-angle lens to create a sense of distance from the proceedings. The framing emphasises this estranging effect, alternatively working in centrally-composed images (a figure or – just as often, a door or chasm – commanding our attention) or wide shots with no clear focus, where we search for meaning.
Similarly, the inscrutable narrative encourages interpretations, particularly in light of Johansson’s last act shift towards humanity – realised in sympathy, vulnerability and suffering. Perhaps this is a feminist film, a chronicle of how a strong, archetypal female character is degraded and destroyed by the assault of the hegemonic hierarchy (certainly, Under the Skin buckles under the horrible weight of sexual assault, and it seems no accident that the first words spoken are a stumbled “N-n-no.”). Upon reflection, this feels like a reduction; after all, even before her encounters with our society, she seems to be under the thrall of a male “minder,” and the notion of a “powerful” woman whose power is rooted almost entirely in sex seems like an oversimplification of a complex film.
Much like 2001 – a film that Under the Skin is so deeply indebted to, I have no qualms namechecking it twice – this is a movie that cries out for an explanation yet inevitably transcends the dreariness of an “answer.” Per the title, this experience is a fundamentally physical one, to be felt rather than understood.
This review was originally published at Cheated Hearts.