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Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
-“Time is a man, space is a woman, and her masculine portion is Death.” William Blake
‘Under the Skin’ is a flawed but audacious adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 quirky, semi-satirical novel about an extraterrestrial predator. The movie version, directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer (previously known for ‘Sexy-Beast’ and ‘Birth’) tells the tale on several levels: on the one hand it is a straightforward psychosexual horror movie in which feckless, lustful youths appear to receive their comeuppance, and it is also a ‘Stranger in a strange land’ story – the fish-out-of-water, the mysterious visitor transplanted out of their comfort zone into a place baffling to them. In terms of narrative and atmosphere, Glazer’s film reminded me most of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the excellent Walter Tevis novel in which David Bowie plays an alien who crosses the galaxy in search of water only to end up as a failure and an Earthbound alcoholic. Both Bowie’s character ‘Newton’ and Johansson’s ‘Laura’ inhabit a human form by which they eventually become distracted and derailed – the complications and unforeseen reactions of their human bodies, exemplified through interaction, sex and empathy, or lack of it, become contributing factors to their downfall.
However, the notion of alienation in this movie becomes a more complex issue and perhaps a polerizing one. One of Glazer’s achievements here is a disorienting level of discomfort, arising from familiar things being severed from their customary context. He stylishly absorbs the influences of Nicolas Roeg and David Lynch, and further filters them through the stern and dispassionate lens of Kubrick or Tarkovsky. The film becomes a stark parable about gender relations, loneliness, lust, empathy and alienation.
I’m not a great fan of Scarlett Johansson and have never found her to be the most expressive of actresses, but, like Bowie in his movie, an estranged, deadpan, understated approach is perfectly suited to this role. Laura is an alien creature adrift in a beautiful woman’s body, unwittingly learning what that may mean. In an audacious, if not wholly successful move, Johansson’s kerb-crawling expeditions were shot with hidden lenses as she trawls the streets of damp, windly, grimy Glasgow in search of male flesh. A Hollywood A-list starlet in this kind of environment is as much of an alien as any extraterrestrial from an intergalactic spaceship could ever be, and that of course, is the point. Johansson being placed in this context, with lots of hidden-camera shots of real passers-by in real Glasgow streets and Glasgow shopping centres, while she coolly sizes them up for their seduction potential and calorific value, is quite disconcerting. Her dissociated ‘life-form’ observes the earthly life-forms around her, from ants to men and while on the prowl, her expression is imperturbable and her feelings unreadable. From these genuine crowds, professional actors emerge for dialogue scenes, although one can never escape the fact that it is Johansson that dominates the screen.
Glazer’s interest is primarily in Johansson’s face and its striking, incongruous, somewhat amorphous beauty. It is helpfully deconstructed by one of the hitchhikers she picks up: “Your eyes. There’s summat about your eyes – your lips – your black hair.” She assumes a friendly personality, peppered with flattery, when she’s smoothly seducing the startled young men. The men she meets are bored and horny and can’t believe their luck— but if she is bemused by a response or begins to feel something like empathy, she retreats into a near-catatonic state, her eyes like the vast pools of dark oil that appear solid, but where the aroused men will soon disappear, engulfed into a cosmic void. Her alien lures them in with polite, persistent questions, barely pausing to hear the replies. Then she takes them back to ‘her place’ where, undressing, she leads each one into a pool of viscous black fluid where they see the bodies of former victims floating naked in the gloom. It’s never made entirely clear what the purpose of her collection is (although in the book they’re ‘meat’ for the gourmets of another planet).
While the Faber novel takes satirical swipes at a range of human targets, from sexuality to factory farming, and is a reflection on class, humanity, and sexual identity, Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell create a sparse, slightly surreal fable with a minimum of dialogue, relying on his trademark striking visuals which here serve to juxtapose scenes of fantasy with gritty realism to disorienting effect. It has proved to be polarizing work. On initial viewing the movie was met with negative and positive criticism in fairly equal measure. The dissociation and dissonance is underlined by Mica Levi’s “musical” score — all scraping violins and droning synth jumps and thumps which remain aurally grating.
Metaphors about the male-female dynamic abound throughout – Johannson’s alien ‘Laura’ being both a watcher and predator of men. In the society she enters, and to which she brings nothing besides a body, Laura is a knowing sex-object, in dress and demeanour a kind of sex toy; she might have come to Earth to prove a point about male expectations of women. If ‘Under the Skin’ conveys any gender-political message, it does so through the disparity in excitement between the male characters’ reaction to Laura and that of her response to them and to the camera.
Her beauty is her trap but, inevitably, it also proves to be her undoing. As the Marquis de Sade observed, “We get pleasure from the sacrilege or profanation of objects that expect our worship” – he perceived that a beautiful woman excites reverence in direct proportion to how she also inspires violence – her beauty may be her power, but it is also her peril, and the beautiful woman is often especially punished for her indifference. Just like another ‘girl-next-door’ pretending to understand sex more than she really does, Laura, while aware of her appeal to men, views sexual fulfillment as an abstraction. She attempts to play by the sexual rules she sees operating in the society in which she is placed, seemingly to acquire her own ends, but the rules have their pitfalls and of these she will soon be made aware. When she allows herself to be penetrated by a comforting stranger, her shocked reaction sends her spiraling into confusion not unlike that into which she drops her own victims. She is not of this Earth, but now her alienness is a mark of a more recognizable sense of estrangement. The existentially uprooted Laura finally begins to understand herself in the way she does her victims – as a commodity, and recoils in distress from this knowledge and her newly found sentience which has been set in motion by her sexual initiation and, subsequently solidified by the violence and degradation of a sexual attack. As she comes to better understand ‘the human’, she becomes increasingly vulnerable and terrified as a woman, which I’m guessing is Glazer’s point, rather obliquely made – and that, as the film sadly articulates through its abstract visual language and downbeat ending, is no way for a girl to come to understand her body, regardless of what’s under her skin.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2014 All rights reserved.
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About Reviewer, Ren Zelen
REN ZELEN describes herself as “a writer, academic editor, reviewer, pop culture junkie, movie buff, rock music enthusiast, science nerd and Sandra Bullock lookalike”. Her fiction and past reviews can be found on her own website: Lethal Lexicon.
Her book/film/TV reviews can be found on various sites on the web. Information and contact on twitter.