Under the Skin
dir. by Jonathan Glazer
Three minutes and several abstract images of a detached eyeball into director Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, Under the Skin, and you know exactly what kind of picture you’re dealing with. Under the Skin doesn’t care much for the literal; instead, it has something very deliberate and ponderous to share with you, and it wants to go about communicating it with the least amount of clarification possible. The film’s not a total mystery. Glazer divulges enough information so that you never feel like a total dunce for losing your way; but still, the film demands a fair share of independent heavy-lifting. Whether it’s a film worth lifting for is a whole other matter.
Not that it really matters, but Scarlett Johansson plays an alien on the prowl for sexually-hopeless men on the Scottish coastline. She’s out there killing and harvesting humans for the sole purpose of…well, we don’t know. None of this is made explicit—other than the whole alien thing, and only in the film’s last five minutes—but it’s there, lingering in the back of our heads rather metaphorically. Not a single frame of this movie’s meant to be taken literally. It’s more of an exercise in thematic style than it is substance. But then again, the style Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin put on display here—that is: if you have a tolerance for such empty exercises—is hypnotically transporting.
Slowly, but surely, Glazer attempts to slip us under the skin of this nameless predator that operates under the guise of someone who shares an uncanny resemblance to superstar Scarlett Johansson. Far from the pampered hills of Hollywood, this Scarlett Johansson looks like she’s been shoved through the glamor wringer and transformed into a short, frumpy, hair-shorn ball of harrumph. This is Johansson as desexualized as she’s ever going to get. No other filmmaker would ever dare “sabotage” their box office draw by ugly-ing up their sex-bomb starlet for the sake of theme and motif. It’s a piece of meta casting, to say the least, but it’s also the film’s most effective tool. I’m sure it doesn’t take much for someone of Johansson’s stature to provoke a man to wander over, quip in hand, and hit her up—as subtly as possible—for a romp in the hay. The film—fully aware of who its star is—flips the script on Johansson and us and pushes its star to act as predator—as the party with the ulterior, dark, pseudo-sexual intention—and lure unsuspecting men into her mini-van of doom.
According to Glazer, the film was loosely scripted and heavily improvised. All the men Johansson picks up in her mini-van appear on screen without former credit or experience to their names. In fact: disguised in a wig, some extra pounds, and a undesirably ratty fur coat, Johansson coaxes these complete strangers into her car without them knowing that they’re about to take part in a little art-house film featuring the Black Widow herself. Johansson, both as actress and human being, gets to experience something not many people in her position get to experience: anonymity. And I say anonymity because, just as Kubrick did with his actors, Glazer—despite the picture’s overall screed on the modern world’s perception and treatment of women as objects—deploys Johansson’s presence as just another prop in the greater visual allegory that is his film. The decision to cast Johansson is more interesting in context with the outside world than it is with what’s going on in the film. Johansson’s performance has been praised from all corners of the critical world, but I really can’t say the same. It’s a controlled performance, but too controlled—to the point where all of Johansson’s internal thinkings surface as nothing more than a shallow collection of looks and reactions untethered to anything rooted in actual emotion. It’s as if Johansson’s too preoccupied with restraining her performance to actually interact with the character’s internal monologue. The only time we get a sense of who this alien is—other than her final skinning—is when we see her interact with what may be the world’s most hideously disfigured man. Just as Johansson serves as the pseudo-sexual stand-in for the eternal plight of women, this big-headed elephant man is the figurative embodiment of those long deprived of the lustful gaze of another person’s eyes. It’s a tough reality: to know that no matter what the conditions—be it low visibility or the oncoming Rapture—no one’s ever going to look at you THATway. More importantly, no one’s ever going to touch you THAT way…unless you’re an alien ignorant to all the twitter-manipulated trends contaminating people’s thoughts with misguided contemplations of what is and isn’t considered beautiful. Ultimately, Johansson’s alien comes to sympathize with this walking-talking symbol of loneliness and frees him from his inky black captivity. Johansson’s alien does it because—in a way—she’s even more invisible than the elephant man. Sure, people stare at both of them—mind you, for wholly different reasons—but they’re largely stared through, rather than at. People see only what their inner fascinations want to see. Never do they see the full-fleshed entity of philosophy before them. Johansson’s alien is considered nothing more than a hole for desire; whereas the elephant man feeds our carnivalesque curiosities for the macabre. They’re both characters forever marked by their external appearances. They have to begrudgingly wear these forced-upon identities due to everyone else’s lack of imagination. It’s our perceptions—the audience’s, as well as society’s—that dress—and undress!—these characters. They have no say as to what we think of them and—by extension—who or what they are.
The film has plenty of big ideas about people’s whacked-out perceptions and how these perceptions dictate other people’s agency and sense of self, but it addresses them in a disappointingly simplistic manner. Despite the camera’s physical proximity to all these “intimate” and unscripted moments, Glazer’s super-secret-spy technique serves to alienate the viewer from the alien’s experiences rather than draw us in, which—I suppose—is the point. But it doesn’t work for me. It’s difficult for me to relate to a film meaningfully when there’s no emotional resonance behind all the filmmaker’s technical craftiness. It’s the same trouble I have with Kubrick’s post-Strangelove films. As far as intellectual filmmakers—like Kubrick and Glazer—are concerned: You could be the first one to have finally discovered the grand design to how and why the universe operates in the fashion that it does—what it all means, where it all goes, blah, blah, blah—but it doesn’t mean shit if there’s no emotional connection between me and whatever’s transpiring up there on the big screen. This film’s images burn in my head long after the film is done—thanks to Glazer and Landin’s eerily disconnected compositions, as well as the butterfly-crushing industrialism of Mica Levi’s haunting score—but without any tissue or sinew to thread them together into a cinematic whole.
Under the Skin is an interesting and absorbing film, to say the least. Glazer clearly knows what he’s up to when it comes to framing and pacing his film with great atmospheric care. Movies are—after all—a predominantly image-driven medium; there’s no reason why they have to include all the other stylistic elements—character, theme, and plot. Sometimes it’s enough for the images to pique our curiosities on their own—as Malick has masterfully accomplished time and time again. But at least with Malick there’s an overwhelming burst of emotion attributed to every shot and composition; and he manages to do so without compromising his headier discourses on love, God, existence, and so on.
When all is said and done, Under the Skin is a film I respect and admire—especially for its behind-the-scenes machinations—but also a film I consider nothing more than an incredibly sophisticated video project meant for the post-modernist section at the MET. I wonder: how tickled would I have been with the film if it hadn’t had such an idiosyncratic production process? Unfortunately, the film is never able to rise above its inherent novelty, nor does it ever imply a depth deeper than the skin. It’s pure style, and because of it, ironically shallow.