Jonathan Glazer’s new film starring Scarlett Johansson, UNDER THE SKIN, is nearly a year old. The film premiered last August at the Telluride festival, played in Venice and Toronto and is now seeing a wider U.S. and U.K. release this spring. In that time it has gathered significant praise and some critical skepticism. Given this wider release outside of the cinephile’s festival circuit, the film is bound to attract both partisans and detractors.
But even from within the specialized world of film UNDER THE SKIN has a weird and unnerving quality. This is a cold, often frightening film that moves hypnotizingly between horror, science fiction and existential drama. Glazer’s movie is smooth, sensual, and very strange.
What praise the film has generated so far is for its qualities as a piece of art, an example of what film can do as a medium. Indeed, Glazer has been occupied for the past decades with some very medium-attentive music video and commercial work. That stylization is at play in this movie, but it’s the archetypal themes underneath—and Johansson’s performance—that make it truly special. This very modern-feeling film has a future-tense quality to it, the pulse of a soon to be cult classic.
In the film Johansson plays an alien in human disguise scouring the streets of Glasgow for unattached men. Glazer’s street scenes are a kind of alien vérité, curious but cold, almost a CCTV quality. The documentary feel isn’t manufactured: Glazer apparently shot many of the scenes spontaneously, sometimes with hidden cameras. That means that at least some of these young Glasgow men began their roles in the film as non-actors, genuinely curious about this van-driving woman asking them for directions.
Johansson’s alien lures the men into her van and then into remote homes on the city’s outskirts. These scenes are among the films most disturbing and beautiful: Johansson pulling both camera and horny Glaswegian into a pitch-black inky nothing-space. The men are then…harvested? Transported? Annihilated? It’s unclear. Suffice it to say they meet an unpleasant and unusual fate.
This all lends the film status as a reverse-parable of gender and sexual power. Here a woman preys on solitary men in an urban environment. The dramatic and unreal violence that awaits them could be read as the inverse of the normalized, repetitive, and very real violence that men impress upon women—street harassment, sexual violence and coercion all seem like candidates for exactly “what” the Johansson-alien character is doing.
The first half of the film proceeds this way, until alien-Johansson takes pity on a disfigured man, freeing him from her harvest. The film makes a distinct turn. It becomes both less sci-fi and less monstrous as Johansson wanders the Scottish landscape, confronting and querying her newfound semi-humanity. The journey of the film now becomes one of alien nihilism toward a kind of humanism, or a humanity strangely alien to itself.
Johansson’s performance deserves serious praise, not simply for its career-defying daring, but for its self-conscious qualities: here she is (at least superficially) playing a seductive, poised woman, exactly the role for which she is often cast in other, less sinister films. Her customary blankness is literally an alien quality. And her sexualized Hollywood persona is projected onto a very ambiguous, un-Hollywood film. She manages this meta performance extremely well—a star playing an alien playing a human, snapping abruptly from a flirtatious English accent to a robotic Kubrickian glare.
While the film’s first half is receiving most of the conversation, the second half both validates and perhaps excuses the first. The film trades those documentary street scenes for lingering shots of the natural landscape of Scotland (including one superimposed shot of D.W. Griffith’s “wind through trees”) and the more obviously cribbed sci-fi bits of mysterious motorcyclists and Johansson’s weird harvest lair. Glazer, his editor, Johansson’s performance and the gorgeous and frightening score created by Mica Levi (the young London musician who performs with her band Micachu & the Shapes) all add up to something completely of a piece, of its own world.
The middle of the film burns with a slow insistence that we begin to see things through her eyes, in an alien way. This new perspective renders human activity in its various permutations absurd, futile, repetitive, and doomed—but also quizzical, hypnotizing, seductive and beautiful. Not a bad description for this film, both frightening in its apparent anti-human nihilism and affective in its movement toward the human.
The film suffers in a few perhaps more-than-minor ways. Plot-wise it does feel like a rather rough storyline cut from the more traditional science-fiction novel on which it is based. And it’s true, the film does take tremendous liberties with itself, including lengthy passages of silence or spooky noise, inexplicable cuts and connections.
Some narrative threads are left to fray. What exactly is the deal with the motorcycle enforcer checking in on Johansson’s progress? What are our Scottish victims being used for? Why does our alien seem to lose her power of speech in the second half of the film? These are either missteps or the film too firmly staking its own enigmatic artiness. To some, these will be annoying inadequacies, and to others, untenable ones; there were two walkouts in my already sparse weeknight screening.
But the loose sci-fi form also allows Glazer the freedom that it has allowed other filmmakers. It’s why certain great directors with metaphysical concerns are drawn to the genre: science fiction projects to the future to say something specific about the present. Classics of the genre (Like SOLARIS, 2001, or BLADE RUNNER) reach beyond the human in order to excavate human themes in a new way.
These films are almost never entirely about alien life forms or distant planets; they’re about something recognizably earthbound, something “here.”
It’s been remarked that Johansson is playing the inverse of her operating system character Samantha in Spike Jonze’s pseudo-sci-fi HER. In that film a human-like OS moves away from apparent personhood toward a purer artificial intelligence, the singularity, whatever. In UNDER THE SKIN, the mechanically efficient Johansson moves convincingly away from her pre-programming, toward empathy and the possibility correspondence with the world and people around her.
While Jonze’s film is warm and (and pink and salmon) this one is cold (black and white, ink blue, and bloody red). But for such a cold and precise film, it sure exercises our empathetic muscles in an interesting way. With UNDER THE SKIN we both confront our ordinary human world from an alien perspective and come to understand the alien, finally, as human.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013) DIR. JONATHAN GLAZER
NOW SCREENING AT KENDAL SQUARE CINEMAS & COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE.