Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is an enthralling, remarkable and unparalleled work of originality. It’s fairly difficult to explain exactly what happens in the film, partly because it doesn’t really matter. Under the Skin uses plot as a means to use image, sound and rhythm to represent feelings inside Glazer’s head. Don’t let your confusion hold you back, just allow yourself to experience this avant-garde cinema.
Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character is introduced on screen naked, taking a dead woman’s clothes off. She’s an alien transplanted into a female body who is using this woman’s clothes to assimilate into society. Johansson, considered one of the most attractive women on earth, doesn’t seem very attractive. Perplexingly, she’s weirdly alien-like. This scene occurs in front of a blisteringly white background with Johansson and the other girl silhouetted in the center. They look like specimens under a microscope. A bug then crawls onto her fingers and suddenly Glazer does an extreme close-up of its highly strange shape with antennae and sharp long legs. The whole opening is absolutely unforgettable. Glazer is drawing attention to how absurd our physical human forms are. Our bodies are normal to us, but if we take a step back, we realize how utterly strange they are.
She enters society for the first time in a crowded shopping mall. Given the opening of the film and music compositions that are scintillating, haunting and enigmatic, the viewer senses her unfamiliarity. This otherwise typical moment, with the usual mall crowds, noises and of course Hollister entryway, feels abstract and new. Remarkably, Glazer makes the viewer understand the alien’s perspective. Soon after, Glazer cuts to several different women being “made-up” in a department store. One has her eyebrows plucked, another is having make-up applied, and another has her arm moisturized. They examine their bodies in the mirror. They are altering their bodies, becoming alien like Johansson. Glazer is effectively pointing out that in modern western society, women are usually pressured to focus on their physical appearance before anything else. The predator/prey relationship between men and women is the focus of Under the Skin but in reverse.
Johnansson’s unnamed character is in modern day Scotland. Throughout the film, she converses with different men on the streets. She picks up whoever is willing to pursue her and brings them into a strange room. She and each man appear in a black, vacuous hallway. She walks away from the camera seductively, stripping slowly, as he does the same while following her. Eventually the black floor becomes reflective, like a mirror in this darkness. Each man follows her, mouth agape; she isn’t a person, but a body. As they follow her, they sink in an oily black liquid pool. She stops her seductive walk once he’s fully submerged. We don’t know where he went. Seconds later, she’ll be on the prowl looking for more men. The first time I saw the film this felt repetitive and unnecessary, but on second viewing, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.
Why is this happening? I really don’t know, I can’t justify every image or scene. Under the Skin is a masterfully distinctive visualization of feelings. It’s exactly as Alfonso Cuarón called it, “pure cinema”. Amazingly, it’s also literally pure reality in some regards. The scenes in which she picks men up off the streets of Scotland actually happened, documentary-style. Johansson wore her costume and make-up and the filmmakers outfitted her car with high quality hidden cameras. The reactions she gets from Scottish men as she tries to pick them up are real. Clearly they must’ve signed waivers and chose to act once they get to the black oily liquid part in the film. However, the fact that this all happened in real life shows how true the conflict is. I imagine this knowledge is partly why I was so entranced by these scenes on second viewing.
I’m still skeptical of how perplexing Under the Skin is on a literal level at times. I’m not willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that every scene and image is worthwhile. Perhaps after 3rd and 4th viewings, it’ll shift into focus but for now I can’t let it off the hook. I’m also uncertain of its feminism. It’s incredibly effective at showing the predator/prey relationship, but is it a revenge fantasy? Why does Glazer have to explore this issue with a woman pursuing men? I’m never a supporter of revenge in cinema or otherwise. I don’t know the answers to these questions but I’ll continue pondering them as Under the Skin is a fascinating movie worth thinking about for weeks if not months or years.
BRIEF SPOILER-FILLED RANT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN THE FILM:
One of Under the Skin’s most fascinating developments involves a deformed man’s interactions with Johansson. He may be symbolic of the non-sexualized male, who doesn’t objectify women. The objectifying male can come in two basic forms. First is the obvious jerk that catcalls women and has no respect for them as complex intelligent beings. The second type has a more insidious layer of sexism. He doesn’t catcall but still views her as a sex object first and person second. This second type is very complicated to explain and requires its own essay, so for now I’ll leave it there. This deformed man might be representative of the man who doesn’t objectify in either form. He doesn’t have friends because, as Glazer may be positing, this is a very rare breed of male that is usually surrounding by the other. After being kind and affectionate to him, Johansson entraps him like the others. However afterwards, she stares into a dirty mirror and feels wrong. Moments later, she brings him back from the black abyss and he’s set free. Glazer seems to be saying most men objectify, but not everyone. This is one of the most intriguing scenes in the film so I thought I should include these thoughts for those who may be interested!