By Simon Miraudo
July 4, 2014
Sensory experiences such as Under the Skin defy mere words, which is going to make enthusiastically recommending it a tricky task indeed. The picture stars Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial who seduces Glaswegian men as a means of harvesting their organic material, for some alien mission we’re never made privy to. Giving that brief description to Jonathan Glazer‘s transfixing tone-poem makes it sound more plot-driven and accessible than it truly is. That description makes it sound like Species. And, er, this is no Species.
Under the Skin feels instead like a feature-length successor to Scotty’s nightmare from Vertigo. It helps that Mica Levi’s droning, snake-charming score pays tribute to Bernard Herrmann’s own. In that aforementioned Hitchcock sequence, James Stewart‘s Scotty, driven mad by an obsession over a beguiling beauty (who was maybe possessed by some otherworldly entity), imagines marching towards her in the darkness, eventually peering into an open grave and tumbling into an abyss.
When Johansson’s unnamed alien leads suitors back to her place – a cavernous black hole – she strips down while they follow behind in kind, barely caring as they find themselves submerged in black goop while she continues to stroll forward. Johansson, following on from her hugely physical performance in Don Jon and solely vocal turn in Her, is superb here as the unfeasibly-womanly creature, inviting normies to accept certain oblivion. She’s such a convincing seductress, you can hardly blame them. When she later becomes shockingly sympathetic, you’ll be amazed at what earlier travesties you’ll forgive. Johansson has become an essential screen presence, in blockbusters and art cinema alike.
Under the Skin is an adaptation of Michael Faber’s book in the same way Chet Hanks is an adaptation of Tom Hanks: they share some material, but these are two totally different animals. Glazer, an accomplished music video director who learnt the power of repetition in his first flick Sexy Beast, treats us to a series of similar sequences; with the just-landed Johansson driving around Scotland in a white van, asking male bystanders for directions, and especially if they have any family or friends, before offering a lift. Many of these interactions were improvised and conducted with actual passers-by, captured by hidden cameras. I fear investigating any further and accidentally unravelling its tangle of reality and fantasy.
Before long, she begins disobeying orders and attempts to live as any regular person might. However, her alien heart isn’t softened by seeing the goodness in her victims, nor does she suddenly come down with an inexplicable case of compassion, as usually happens in science fiction. (At one point, she in fact looks upon acts of self-sacrifice and bravery on a beach dispassionately, as if it was bacteria scattering under a microscope in unknowable ways). It’s instead imperfection, peculiarity, and deformity that intrigues her most, particularly after she picks up a young man with facial neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson). In private, she inspects her nude body in a mirror, stretching awkwardly and watching the wrinkles form. Did her dossier on Earth not reveal just how self-conscious we humans can be? She may not suffer from original sin, or shame, yet she too learns how humbling it is to have to carry around these weird, freakish flesh bags called bodies.
Under the Skin will rankle some viewers. Okay, most. Not even the presence of A-lister Johansson, Glazer’s genuinely chilling horror-movie moments, puncturing the unbearable bubbles of tension, or Daniel Landin’s dazzling cinematography could make this go down smooth. Nonetheless, to those who think it nonsense – (cough) the guy behind me as I left its screening (cough) – you don’t have to gaze too deeply to find meaning in it all. Under the Skin is about an alien who becomes entranced by her feminine qualities and how powerful they can be, only to pay the price for being a woman in the world, leered at and lusted over, in increasingly dangerous scenarios. Stunning to behold, often impossible-seeming, hypnotic and profoundly affecting, Under the Skin achieves what some sci-fi films could only ever dream of: actually taking us to another universe entirely.
Under the Skin plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival July 6 and 9, 2014. It’s also showing in select cinemas around Australia.