A nameless, wide-eyed mystery woman (Johansson) drifts across Scotland, seeking men for apparently grubby encounters, before beginning to question the purpose of her existence and the value of those around her.
There’s a sexy, brooding, thrilling film to be made out of Michel Faber’s compelling novel of lust and death. This isn’t it. But, as frustrating and bewildering as Under The Skin is, it swims with moments of beauty and horror, and few films make you think so much. You can debate whether this is a recommendation.
Jonathan Glazer’s previous two features — Sexy Beast and Birth — grew upon being rewatched. The imponderable question, for now, is whether his third will reward repeat viewing or simply require it, as it feels in places impenetrable. Those who haven’t read the novel — or any reviews — may take most of the running time to discover just what the hell is going on, and even then the conclusion is unclear. If you crave certainty in your cinema then you are unlikely to enjoy it. Allow yourself to settle beside Scarlett Johansson’s malleable lead, though, and to ask questions with (rather than of) her, and it’s likely to be a more invigorating experience.
Under The Skin is — broadly — about an awakening, as a coldly efficient worker comes to wonder if there’s more to her life and that of those around her. It is — more specifically, spoiler-ifically — about an alien who adopts the body of a twentysomething hottie and stalks a cold, grey Scotland for men to pick up. It’s like inverted curb-crawling, as she drives around seeking strangers for apparent seduction, the blokes generally feeling they’ve won the lottery when a little small talk — establishing, usually, that they won’t be missed — leads to a lift from, well, Scarlett Johansson. It’s only when they’re alone with her that they realise their luck is actually bad and — in a startling visual space it’s impossible to effectively convey — this will be their final one-night stand. It’s like Species directed by Gus Van Sant.
Johansson is quietly brilliant. As the girl who fell to Earth, she is confused, repulsed and fascinated by what she finds — eyes searching for clues, as her face seeks the right expression, trying to become comfortable in her skin. It’s hard to imagine anyone being as appropriate for the part — and as brave — as her, blending innocence and inquisitiveness with a sexuality that’s both irresistible and monstrous. And though her much-vaunted sensuality is essential, there’s more here than natural huskiness or a body beautiful — the exposure is psychological as much as physical, for she has to portray someone — something, really — growing a soul.
The extent of the character’s transformation — the question of how much empathy is truly universal — is to be debated. Does Under The Skin stretch past its initial view of humans (reminiscent of the old nihilist tattoo: “Meat”) to something more comforting — and should it? Perhaps the film simply reflects yourself, how you feel about our journey from dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It perpetually feels like it’s threatening to develop a more accessible story, pregnant with expectation that doesn’t deliver, at least not in any conventional sense. But as infuriating or anticlimactic as you may find the ending, it floats in the memory, this feeling that we’re all at sea, tossed by the waves, reaching out for someone — anyone — to help. Save us.
Odd and sexy, troubling and touching, frustrating and mesmerising, dull and haunting. A film by Jonathan Glazer.