Under The Skin (2013) is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.
In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.
Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.
We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.
Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.
As she gradually becomes more sympathetic to her would-be prey, cracks begin to show – she allows one horribly disfigured man to escape out of pity, but to no avail – the motorcyclist tracks the man down and kills him anyway; he’s very much like the angels of death who also ride motorcycles in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), remorselessly dedicated to death, endlessly riding through the nights and days without rest.
There’s a remarkable sequence in which Johansson’s character attempts to eat some cake, with the most deliberate hesitation imaginable, staring at it as if she’s wondering why anyone would eat such a thing, only to vomit it up at first bite. In another scene, a somewhat sympathetic man takes her in, and then after a few days tries to have sex with her. Johansson leaps off the bed as the man tries to penetrate her, surprised and shocked to discover the true nature of her manufactured or borrowed body.
Most of the film is wordless, and famously, the men Johansson picks up are just men on the streets who are initially unaware that they are being filmed; Johansson’s van is tricked out with hidden cameras that record each encounter, and so much of the film has an improvised, documentary feel to it. Only after they are involved in the film do the men find out what they’re really in for; the studio sequences that follow were shot on a London soundstage, with the barest possible suggestion of props.
Then too, the dialect of the “worldly” performers is so heavily Scottish that it’s almost indecipherable to American viewers, and perhaps viewers in the UK as well, and no subtitles are provided. Thus, we identify with Johansson’s alien state of existence; it’s an alien landscape in every sense of the word.
As Johansson stalks yet another victim, her van is attacked by a group of thugs, yet she doesn’t seem really threatened; she just drives away from the trouble, still on the hunt. At another point, while trailing some new prospect, she falls in with a group of young women on the way to a rave. Unable to break away from the pack, she is ultimately pushed into a strobe lit dungeon of a nightclub, which only disorients her more, as she desperately seeks to escape.
At the beginning of the film, we feel nothing for this young “woman”; she might as well be the archetypal femme fatale of numerous noir films of the 1940s and 50s, luring men to their doom, but as the film unfolds, she seems to be drifting away from her single-minded search for victims, and becomes more a part of the society she seeks to decimate.
Johansson clearly understand this. As she said of her role, “she has no ill will. This isn’t a film about woman preying on man or a kind of hypersexual relationship. It has nothing to do with those things, it’s merely a lioness on the prowl, hunting. I think by the end of the film if you as the audience can feel sympathy for this other species as she begins to sympathize with us, that’s the experience.”
This nascent sympathetic impulse leads to a remarkable sequence in which the motorcyclist confronts Johansson’s character without uttering a single syllable; staring into her eyes intently, the cyclist seems to be interrogating her through the power of the look alone, to see whether or not she’s lost the will to kill. McWilliams’ gaze is impassive, clinical, and dispassionate, the look that controls. Throughout the film, I was also reminded of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), a similarly mysterious film, in which Terence Stamp shows up in an upper class Italian household and seduces its members one by one, again with almost no dialogue.
The most obvious connection between Under the Skin and an earlier film, however, is a surprising one; although the film is based on a novel by Michel Faber, there’s no question that both the film and the novel owe a debt to Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957), written by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, in which veteran character actor Paul Birch plays the role of an equally rapacious alien, who has been sent to earth to harvest humans as food for his dying race.
That said, there’s no question that Glazer’s film is the superior piece of work, and also no question that in her portrayal of the alien invader, Johansson does her finest work to date, tackling a really risky role with genuine intensity and fearless conviction. Produced by Channel 4 Films and the British Film Institute, Under The Skin stands out in the contemporary cinematic landscape as one of the few truly experimental films now being made.
Viewing the film, I thought wistfully of the 1960s, or even the 1970s, when experimental cinema as practiced by everyone from Godard to Buñuel to Jodorowsky to Varda and all the possible stops in-between was a commonplace occurrence, even in the commercial marketplace; there seemed to be room then for both mainstream cinema, and more adventurous fare. Now it seems as if the multiplex crowd-pleaser has taken over completely, and erased whatever hold smaller films might have had in theaters.
Scarlett Johansson is everywhere these days; she’s in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), where despite the undeniable political freight the film carries, she still simply hits her marks and says her lines; she provided the voice of the “operating system” Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) without breaking a sweat; she’ll next be seen in Luc Besson’s dark sci-fi thriller Lucy (2014); and she’s making two more entries in the Marvel Avengers series for release in 2015, David Hayter’s Black Widow (just announced) and Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (currently filming), reprising her character of Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow.
For this, she is making a hell of a lot of money. And why not; she brings people into theaters, so she’s worth the going price of the marketplace, and her current strategy of making a few commercial films, and then a few riskier projects (such as Her and Under The Skin) as an artistic stretch seems to be paying off. The entire budget of Under The Skin was a mere eight million dollars – nothing by contemporary standards – and obviously the only reason the film got made, after a ten year struggle by director Glazer, was because of Johansson’s immensely bankable presence in the film.
Glazer has only three feature films to his credit over thirteen years – Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and now Under The Skin (2013); before that, Glazer directed music videos for such luminaries as Radiohead, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Massive Attack and Blur, and he obviously puts a lot of time, effort, and care into every project. Birth was a remarkable film, and Nicole Kidman was exceptional in it, as a young widow whose husband may have been reincarnated in the person of a young boy; while Sexy Beast, to my mind the least of his films, was still a solid crime thriller.
But with this film, Glazer has created something truly exceptional; told almost entirely through visuals, with a hypnotic soundtrack by Mica Levi, and ravishing cinematography by Daniel Landin, Under The Skin effectively creates a world of alien difference, in which the everyday is transformed into something at once sensuous and menacing, and the premise of aliens among us foraging for human sustenance seems disquietingly plausible.
I’ll probably write more on this film later, which seems to me a nearly perfect piece of work, but for moment, as it enters initial release, I don’t want to say anything more beyond this; see this film. It is a unique, unsettling, altogether original piece of cinema. Right now, it’s being screened in only a few theaters in the States, where nevertheless it has a higher “per screen” average than anything else currently in distribution. Of course, Scarlett Johansson on the prowl for sex-starved men is what’s pulling people into the theaters, but what the film is really about is something altogether different. See it for yourself.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes frequently for Film International.