Visually Seductive Skin an Emotional Enigma
A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives the lonely streets of Glasgow randomly stopping to talk with a variety of lonely looking men. When she comes across one she likes, this lithe, seductive, young-looking creature takes them back to what on the outside looks to be her home. Inside? It’s more of a lair than anything else, every man who enters unlikely to leave once they strip naked and wander deeper inside enthralled by her sultry gaze.
Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast, Birth) third feature Under the Skin is about mortality. It is about transformation. It is about discovering a sense of self within a physical shell that is in a constant state of flux. It is about what it means to live life as an engaged and active participant and not as a mindless drone working only for the sustenance of others. It is about all of this and more, everything revolving around a nameless heroine who may be inhuman but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t over time find herself becoming intimately connected with her own innate humanity.
At least, that’s what I think Under the Skin is about. In all honesty there really isn’t any way for me to be certain, Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel about as loose as they come. Eschewing traditional narrative tropes, with no character names and very little dialogue, he and fellow screenwriter Walter Campbell have manufactured a scenario that throws normalcy and familiarity out with the bathwater. Their construct is a fever-dream of unsettling imagination, a hypnotic mélange of metaphor and meaning driving to a conclusion that’s as unexpected and terrifying as it is oddly tragic.
I must admit, my initial reaction to Under the Skin wasn’t particularly kind. I just couldn’t get a grasp on what it was I felt like Glazer was going for. I had trouble comprehending all of the elements that were being transmitted by the filmmaker, every tandem and plot strand connected but in ways that felt uncomfortably ephemeral and nondescript. I was frustrated as much as I was engrossed, and while I never wanted to leave my theater seat I couldn’t help but wish the director would give me a more concrete clue as to what it was he was trying to tell me.
Funny thing is, moments after it was over I found I couldn’t get any of what it was I just witnessed out of my head. Better, as the days past I was mulling over all the ideas, concepts and themes in ever escalating fervor, so much of what happened burned into my brainpan in ways I’m likely never to forget. I felt like I was suddenly able to start to put the pieces together, and in my own way it began to occur to me what I imagined it was Glazer was going for.
This is a daring, undeniably raw piece of acting on Johansson’s part, the actress beginning the film as a seductively smiling shell and ending it as an intrinsically pitiable figure of emotional longing filled with oceans of regret. Her only pieces of dialogue are random pickup lines directed at a menagerie of men whom she has been sent to collect (for reasons I will not disclose), everything else transmitted in winsome bits of silence that are ear-shattering in their volume. She is the force around which everything revolves, and as meticulously constructed and as visually refined as the film itself might be none of it would matter if Johansson wasn’t up to the challenge of bringing it to life.
Not that the technical side of the equation isn’t impressive. Daniel Landin’s (The Uninvited) camerawork is gloriously unsettling, a visual master class of perceptive restraint calling to mind a varied lot of likely inspirations including Rosemary’s Baby, Last Year at Marienbad, Solaris, Days of Heaven and Eyes Wide Shut. Furthermore, Under the Skin is meticulously edited by Paul Watts, every scene cut together with seamless specificity always keeping the main character in the center of the action even when the viewer is seeing things from her perspective. Best of all is Mica Levi’s devastating score, the composer’s rhythms and cues driving the action continually forward no matter how cryptic the visuals and ideas being presented might initially appear to be.
Glazer’s latest isn’t an easy sit. It doesn’t present simple answers to complex questions, using a narrative device that’s as beguiling as it is distancing, placing the viewer in increasingly uncomfortable positions as things progress to their catastrophically staggering conclusion. But the nature of a constructed self, the idea that a human sense of being can be created seemingly out of the ether, that one’s persona is what they decide themselves to make of it, in many ways those are concepts everyone, everywhere and of all cultures can in large part relate to and understand.
Under the Skin doesn’t apologize for being difficult, it embraces the fact, everything inside its cinematic shell a rollercoaster of emotional tumult worthy of being ridden multiple times.
Film Rating: 3.5 out of 4
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle