Ever so often there’s a film that moves beyond pure entertainment, and manages to touch on culture, mysticism, sexuality and even art without being tiresome. Films that are able to gently deliver the viewer to these different areas while presenting a unique point of view seem to be lost to the past, movies with expansive horizons such as 2001 or The Shining spring to mind, but comparing Under the Skin to any one genre or film is a waste of breath. To put it simply, Under the Skin is beautiful science fiction for grown ups.
The plot of the film is strange indeed, a brunette Scarlett Johansson busily put to work, driving a van around Scotland, seducing lonely men, drawing them into her home, and then setting back out again to seduce more. She’s only interested in men without families, without ties of any kind, and her work is relentless, never ending. When a disruption occurs in her workflow, causing her to abandon her efforts, she sets off across the countryside, exploring and searching for something missing, something unknown even to her as she attempts to regain control of her life.
Yes, that’s incredibly vague. I’m telling you, you’d be angry if you knew any more than that because the joy of discovery is so very wild with this one.
Under the Skin has some of the most vivid and memorable visual elements of the year so far, from moments of disgust and terror to things beyond the purview of normal human experience. Things so strange and wonderful, dark and bizarre that they’ve stayed with me weeks after seeing the film, and I often return to them in my thoughts, pulling them out and examining them, but never too closely.
Perhaps the most refreshing element in a film bursting with haunting, memorable imagery is the absolute control and intentionality of the filmmaker, director Jonathan Glazer. Few directors working today emit such absolute, complete films — among them Kenneth Lonergan, Andrea Arnold, Won Kar Wai, David Lynch, Leos Carax and Nicole Holocefner — and Glazer, with his careful eye for tone, mood and feeling is quickly joining the ranks of the great.
Glazer’s personal style is present throughout the film, instantly recognizable. Glazer is transfixed by long, slow takes that trip up our scattered brains, causing us to slow down, seek out information at a different pace, and believe that every frame of the film was carefully selected for a reason. There’s also the extremely unnerving human element in his work, a kind of clear vision that only comes with being an outsider.
The criminally underseen Birth, Glazer’s last film, made ten years ago, also dealt with visitors who disrupt the status quo, and epiphanies that demand to be dealt with. Birth is one of the greatest overlooked films of the past decade, a solemn, strange film that deserved better than it got, dealing with extraordinary themes in ways never seen previously. In much the same way, I’ve never seen a film like Under the Skin.
Shot moodily in the cities, beaches and forests of Scotland, Under the Skin is a hazy, chilling picture of an otherworldly land, rolling green hills and churning waves, all manner of landscapes in a dream-like kingdom of chaos, darkness lingering just under the surface. Composer Mica Levi has also created one of the best accompanying scores of the year, atonal and dissonant, eerie and frightening — image and sound absolutely perfectly matched.
Dressed down and slightly tarnished, Scarlett Johansson is ideally suited for the role, one that stretches her abilities without taking her so far that we see the cracks in the surface. In many of her films, Johansson’s beauty often distracts from her impersonal style of acting, a kind of defense mechanism that keeps us at arm’s length, never quite understanding her intentions or getting a true read on her abilities. Here, as a young woman not quite comfortable anywhere at any time, we are asked to trust her more than usual, and in return, Johansson seems to accept that trust by appearing naked several times. Always in context, but still, how odd, to see such a thing, a body men have lusted after so voraciously, have written endless words about, a body media outlets have dissected and photographed and consumed. How strange to see it there, in front of you. The sheer offering of it so freely caused me to avert my eyes. Perhaps only Johansson could have played a woman endlessly seducing, endlessly offering and forever inaccessible.
Under the Skin is certainly not a film for everybody, but the people who recognize it for what it is will surely feel almost a palpable sense of relief. A kind of mental homecoming, a cinematic sweet spot that rewards time and attention exponentially. Science fiction should have much to say about the human condition, reflections that illuminate and inspire, but too often the possibilities of the genre are subsumed by robots and laser gun fights. Under the Skin is a return to the kind of filmmaking that set our sights on the stars and made us wonder what eternity might exist within.
(Note: Sensitive viewers, there is a scene of somewhat extreme sexual violence that may upset, and there is vicious and casual violence throughout the film. If you are easily upset or triggered, be self-aware.)
Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, and has written for Film.com, Movies.com, Fandango, Interview Magazine. She is a member of OFCS, AWFJ and the WFCC.