Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) makes films that feel abstract. This one is his most enigmatic to date. Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman who prowls Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside at night looking for men. She gets them into her van and seduces them to go home with her. Then she makes them fall into a black ooze. This is a strange, poetic science fiction film that may test your patience while you wait for the long scenes to unfold or for something to happen. Long periods of her roaming around in the fog are punctuated by bursts of incident so powerful, so devastating, they quietly astound and shock.
Your patience will be amply rewarded by the realization that you are seeing things from the point of view of an alien. She is utterly outside, not only of society, but of human feeling. She also seems to be unaware of our frantic notions of time. She seems to have all the time in the world. Glazer is not interested in cutting to the chase. We are on her time frame. He wants us to see the world from the outside looking in. Under The Skin makes us notice what we all have under the skin and what we take for granted; that is, our humanity. This is not to say this movie is a sappy paean to the good in people, God forbid. It is an elegant observation of what makes us human, in all its banal, noisy, messy, complicated, matter-of-fact reality. Connection, for instance. She always looks for lone men. For some reason, she is not interested in harvesting women. The purpose of her mission is never explained. She trains her almond shaped eyes on the way humans behave, and we see ourselves, observed, doing nothing remarkable. Shopping, crossing the street, talking on the phone, coming back from a soccer game, waiting. To her, we are a noisy, incomprehensible bunch, but she has learned to ape our superficial social chitchat, always asking the men if they live alone and where they are from.
As we fidget at the slowness of the film, Glazer springs on us surprising things. She is suddenly drowned by a wave of excited women going to a disco (portrayed as a techno version of hell). On a terrifying, and quickly becoming legendary, scene with a young family on a beach, there is no suspense. Only the horrific realization that this woman has no human feeling.
After an encounter with a remarkable man, something changes in her. I did not quite understand why or how things happened in this sequence, but the fact is that she revolts against her mission. Saying more would spoil the mystery.
If you are bored out of your wits, you can allow yourself to float under the spell of La Johansson’s otherworldly presence. Dressed cheaply, wearing terrible black bangs, a bit chubby even, with or without makeup, she is a creature. Her face engulfs the screen. It is an inspired piece of casting; female seduction made flesh, and she is a good enough actress to deploy her porous sensuality without exaggeration. The scenes where she traps her prey are both beautiful, darkly funny and fodder for years of psychoanalysis, the men following her like the chant of the sirens, sinking deeper, even shrinking at the opportunity to possess her. But in the moments when she is simply lost amidst the humans she is equally present, slightly befuddled, affectless but not exactly cold. She makes you notice what it is to display the slightest feeling, and how oblivious we are to our own humanity. She seems to absorb everything she sees through her skin. It is a measured and successful performance of an alien trying to pass for human without a shred of cliché.
I loved the creepy, incantatory music by Mica Levi and Glazer’s customary elegant simplicity with images. He creates moments of terrifying beauty. Every time I thought the movie was veering towards the pretentious, some astonishing image arrived to haunt me. The film is visceral, minimal, elegant and perhaps (I hope) deliberately fuzzy. It is strangely gorgeous, quietly violent, deeply disturbing, and utterly hypnotic.