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Under the Skin

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 25, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.


In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed girl who fell to Earth.

I haven’t read the Michael Faber novel that Under the Skin, the remarkable third film from British writer/director Jonathan Glazer, is based on, although I’ve heard many good things about it. I would imagine it would supply some information that Glazer has elected not to provide in the film, such as what this woman (this Venus in furs and stonewashed jeans) is actually doing in Scotland aside from picking up strange (and stranger) men on the lonely roads in and around Glasgow and Dumfries and converting them to whatever nefarious purposes.

But I don’t think I want to know - I want to preserve the mystery, to simply let the movie live in me as it does now, as an uncomfortable yet exhilarating experience. Having seen Under the Skin, I feel something like a man who has had a close encounter with something beautiful, dangerous and beyond my comprehension. It’s the sort of movie on which cult reputations are made.

Needless to say, your mileage may vary. While I don’t like to stress that there are movies made for cinephiles and movies made to sell popcorn, the truth is few audiences are going to stand for this sort of artistic ambition in their space alien movies. I would imagine that a lot of moviegoers are going to be simply baffled by this film, and since they aren’t used to being baffled and having a taste for it, they’re not going to like it. On the other hand, a sizable minority of folks are going to be dazzled by it. Obsessives will sink into this film. Some of us will still be talking about it in 30 years.

So let’s not stint - one adjective that’s often been applied to Glazer’s work (which also includes 2000’s Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth)is “Kubrickian,” and Glazer seems to encourage this by some not-quite-subtle references in Birth. Yet the classic movie that Under the Skin most reminds me of is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), although that’s more for its elliptical storytelling than the similarities of plot. Like Roeg, Glazer - in this film at least, I remember Sexy Beast as being viciously verbal - shows rather than tells, with the aural cues provided mainly by Mica Levi’s weird synth score. It’s really no problem that the thick Glaswegian accents of some of the characters at first sound nearly indecipherable.This is how our world looks to fresh but fully adult (perhaps super-intelligent) eyes. This is the naked lunch William Burroughs was talking about.

If you’ve heard anything about Under the Skin, it’s that it stars Scarlett Johansson as an otherworldly being. And that she’s often naked in the film. We meet her as she strips the clothes from a dead doppelganger, a strange man on a motorcycle she has recently collected. Why the girl’s dead and how she died are just two questions Glazer never bothers to answer - we can assume Scarlett’s helpmeet (no one ever gets a name) is also an alien, probably her controller, but exactly what they’re up to is only hinted at.

Most of the first act consists of our girl trolling the streets in a white panel truck for lonely working-class males. She stops, ostensibly to ask for directions in a charming, pellucid British accent (Johansson’s voice work here is the equal of her disembodied turn in Her).

Amazingly, many of the scenes used in this montage section were filmed via hidden camera. Johansson, apparently unrecognizable in a black wig, is usually interacting with nonactors completely unaware they’re being filmed, much less talking to a movie star.

She gets them in the truck, takes them back to a skeezy ruin of an apartment where she plies them with the promise of sex and they get, uh, well, processed. This is represented via a visually spectacular effect that I don’t think we’re meant to take literally (though who knows?).

To say what happens next would be a guess, but in the third act she appears to find herself on the run - I think it has to do with her creature aspiring to understand what it is like to be a moral human, but to really get into that we need some pie and coffee and a couple of hours.

While this isn’t the sort of film that allows for a lot of dramatic histrionics, Johansson has an unnerving way of switching from clinical detachment to engaging humanoid without jamming the gears. The transition is all the more chilling for its seamlessness. She’s to be praised for her willingness to take this role, which basically allows Glazer to use her image and persona in service of an unsettling and unflinching yet ultimately beautiful film that can be read in a myriad of ways. This is a movie that will haunt you. You have been warned.

Under the Skin 90 Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay Director: Jonathan Glazer Rating: R, for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language Running time: 108 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 04/25/2014

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