In Jonathan Glazer’s riveting Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays – no, that’s not quite the right word – is an alien in human form, driving around Glasgow in a van and picking up guys, taking them to her place for sex but instead sending them to a strange other-dimensional fate (in the book on which the film is based, it’s apparently explicit that they’re sent to be consumed on her home planet, but the film doesn’t spell it out). She’s aided by a man on a motorcycle, who monitors her activity and sometimes steps in to help with clean up. All seems to proceed smoothly until she picks up a man with neurofibromatosis – the “elephant man disease” – who, whether because of unsuitability or a faltering on her part, is able to escape; after that, her focus is lost, and she wanders, tentatively testing the extent to which she can live as a human.
Under the Skin
Glazer clearly sets out with the film to create a modern myth, to add to the privileged catalogue of such works. The opening shots of the film evoke the cosmic abstraction of something like 2001; the man on the motorcycle and the victims’ descent into viscous oblivion links to Jean Cocteau; the alien’s real form and some aspects of her quest echo The Man who Fell to Earth; the notion of a woman transformed through sex into something destructive goes back to Cat People, and I’m sure the list of resonances could go on almost indefinitely. The film teems with bleakly stunning images, often showcasing the forbidding grandeur of the Scottish landscapes, against which thoughts of relative human powerlessness are standard existential fare. The music score sounds conceived and performed by an ensemble on the verge of cracking its head open. At some points, in particular in an extended scene involving the fate of a couple and their young child on a beach, Glazer seems to be testing how much cruelty we can stand to absorb.
I usually avoid spending extended portions of these reviews discussing the qualities or otherwise of its actors, but it’s impossible in this case not to reflect at some length on Scarlett Johansson. This isn’t just a case of casting an actor in a role – the film’s impact depends to a massive extent on having someone like Scarlett Johansson (having seen the film, it feels like it could only ever have been specifically her) at its centre. Many of the people in the film aren’t actors – Johansson actually drove around Glasgow and instigated the encounters, monitored by hidden cameras, with the film crew eventually emerging to make things clear and take care of paperwork. This sets up a complex spin on our customary engagement with glamorously famous Hollywood stars. On the one hand, it extends the usual pleasure of watching and implied desire to a near-ultimate place – she’s never made a film which is so much about looking at her, without the benefit of studio lighting, often semi- or completely naked. And at the same time, she’s audaciously, rampantly available; we’re watching men, however briefly, sensing the possibility of one of those stories you tell forever. And then it kills them, although in a way strangely evocative of what they came for, extending into infinity the disembodied emptiness of orgasm.
One could theoretically imagine the film with one of those countless California women who embody conventional aerobicized concepts of sexiness, looking potentially (and perhaps in some respects literally) constructed on a surgeon’s table. But Johansson doesn’t look like that at all – she’s much more traditionally voluptuous, with the kind of old-school physicality that might look sexier in a low-cut dress than out of it, and causing you to think about her body in a very direct, visceral way. I don’t mean that to sound prurient – the director and the actress clearly knew what they were up to here. Overall, Under the Skin is the first film in years that seems to warrant a place in the pantheon that indelibly fuse our sense of actress and character, creating something endlessly enveloping and transcendent: Marlene Dietrich’s pictures with Josef von Sternberg, Kim Novak in Vertigo, some of Catherine Deneuve’s early films, and so on (although not so on for very long – it’s not a real long list).
It’s probably clear from all this that Under the Skin is one of the emblematic films that’s “not for everyone.” Jeffrey Wells of the Hollywood Elsewhere website, for instance, said this: “I sat there and sat there, waiting for ‘it’ to happen, for any notion of what this film might be saying or even hinting at, for anything at all to come together in my head…and nothing happened. My eyes glazed over. My spirit sank into the swamp. Trust me, Under the Skin is pretty close to torture. Torture after dropping two Percocets. Profoundly alienating — dull, meandering, murkily photographed, incoherent, nothing.”
Aliens in disguise
Admittedly, even if you don’t share that assessment, it might be a little hard to articulate the film’s strengths. Stephen Holden ended his New York Times review by saying it “leaves us reflecting on the possibility that every being in the universe is an alien in disguise,” but I’m not sure how one could meaningfully “reflect” on such a pointless thing (at least, not without succumbing to paranoid delusions). It seems more relevant to me that in modern-day Scotland, the one thing you can be sure of is that things are no more special than they seem. The film sometimes feels like a documentary, watching people in shopping malls or on the street; at one point, it gives us a fairly extended look at one man’s life – his meagre purchases at the grocery store, later eating his dinner in front of the TV while watching a recording of long-dead British comedian Tommy Cooper. Fantasy films usually avoid dating themselves too specifically, but at one point here, a radio broadcast refers to the pending referendum on independence. It’s clearly Scotland in the here and now, crawling ahead with its daily struggles and small pleasures, which may or may not be aligned with some broader national direction.
Only in one way that we know of could the concept of “aliens in disguise” be relevant to this time and place, and that’s through the intervention of cinema: what’s more alien to normal life than Hollywood and all that it represents, and what wears more of a disguise, insisting on the necessity of its products to our lives while offering only bland forms of death? At the same time as Under the Skin was in theatres, after all, one could still catch Johansson as “Black Widow” in Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Such creations exist impossibly far from life; it’s remarkable that, however briefly, Under the Skin reached out and bridged the divide.