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Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Is this the expression of an inhuman, alien intelligence,
or is it the look of a person thinking "Did I remember to
turn the oven off before I left home?"

dir: Jonathan Glazer

This is a deeply unsettling film, or at least it was for me. The strongest evidence for this is the fact that the movie takes a whole bunch of Scarlett Johannson nudity and renders it unpleasant and deeply disturbing.

This is science fiction in the truest sense of the use of the term, in that it's not just an action flick with robots and aliens fighting it out over the skies of New York. It is, in some ways, more of a horror film. Right from the start the soundtrack and the sound design is structured to make us feel unsettled, and, in my case, really anxious.

You can probably find parallels between this flick and a few others, but it's fairly novel in its structure, and in the amount of information it withholds from us. There's barely any dialogue in it, and almost all of the story it has to tell is delivered visually.

As the flick starts, there are some stark and 'alien' (but really simple) looking visuals, and a screeching tone that causes goosebumps. I wasn't sure what we were watching, other than a skewed homage to 2001 in some form, but what I chose it to mean, as a muffled voice in the distance sounds like it's trying out words for the first time, is the creation of something. Something designed to look like a someone. Because the final of these introductory images is an unblinking eye.

The next scene in an already perplexing film has a guy on a motorbike riding around, stopping at a curve, marching down over the side, and picking up a woman's body. The body is laid down in a white kind of place (in the back of a van?), where a naked person (Johansson) strips the body of its clothing. A single tear falls from the eye of the dead woman.

The new woman dresses in skank clothing taken from a corpse, and drives around in a van. This can't be good. There aren't many wholesome reasons to do so.

As she drives, the soundtrack and soundscape are really creepy, so we know she's up to no good, or at least we suspect she's got a dark plan. As she drives, the camera lingers on men walking on the footpaths and roads outside the van. Some of the shots are almost sexual. The guys aren't doing anything special, they're just guys going about their business.

She drives, her face impassive, barely if ever blinking. When she calls out and chats to the men who come to the window, she uses a faux English accent, but it's them speaking in an utterly alien tongue.

Way to overturn expectations, people. The brogues on these Scottish guys are so thick that I'm unsure as to who the real extraterrestrial is. E.T's accent was clearer.

When she speaks, she's animated and chatty, but as soon as she figures out that they have people waiting for them somewhere, or a family that will miss them, her demeanour changes and she drives off.

She eventually finds one guy, a Rangers FC fan, judging from the scarf he's wearing after a football game, and he's a raging hard-on of a Scotsman. Literally. The best kind, for her purposes.

He compliments her eyes and lips (as far as I could tell, he might have been relating the outcome of the game, for all I know), and she smiles and encourages him coyly.

Back to hers. A very strange kind of music and beat now plays. She walks in front of him, into a black space, disrobing. He happily disrobes too, as they walk over what looks like a black mirror. She keeps walking, and he doesn't even really notice that he's sinking into it, until he's gone. She picks her clothes up, and that's it.

That's it? Won't we get more, to understand what the hell is going on? Well, we'll get heaps more unsettling music, and creepier visuals, but she'll essentially keep repeating this formula for ages.

This is her job, and people should take pride in their jobs. It leads her to travel, meet people, and such, but she's still doing something inherently unnatural with them.

The mistake they make is that they think she's human. The mistake she makes, eventually, is in thinking she's human.

Johannson has received a lot of credit for the flick's success, and it's a strong performance, but it's not that hard to maintain a look of utter confusion for an extended length of time. I go through everyday life with a look of pained perplexity at the best of times, and I am, as far as I know, utterly, depressingly human. There's more to her performance than that. She manages to look like an alien in a human body, wearing a human's skin, mimicing our behaviours without ever looking comfortable with them.

Something happens to her, we know not what. Some change occurs. Even though there is no substantiation within the film itself (very little of anything is explained, which helps the aesthetic but not the confused punters in the audience), I think it's this moment when she receives a flower from a guy on the road. The man's hand was bleeding, and somehow the alien becomes infected with something.

Previous to this moment we have no idea whether she sees her victims as sentient beings, or whether they're just cattle for the slaughter. After this moment with the blood, even though she goes through the same motions, seducing a man with extensive facial deformation (what some reviews inelegantly refer to as Elephant Man syndrome, whereas it's actually known as neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson being the chap in these bits), it leads to a different result than before. Is this the start of compassion from an utterly inhuman being?

Whereas before she was pitiless with humans, now it seems to bug her. In the strange, decrepit house where these unholy things happen, she finds herself arrested by herself as she walks past what I think was a mirror, caught by her own reflection, for longer than even the vainest person would usually stare.

Now many might joke that it's perfectly understandable for someone who looks like Scarlett Johansson to be entranced by her own reflection, but anyone who watches the film the whole way through would not still think so. There is no vanity to the performance, in fact it's the opposite (though you can't discount vanity in the selection of such a "difficult" role). When she looks at herself in the mirror naked, it's because she's trying to figure out what these bodies are for. Her ("it's" is perhaps more appropriate, because we don't actually know anything about their species) own original anatomy, we can safely say is not like the skin she wears, but she's determined to find out more about it. She can't eat our food, but she tries, gods love her.

At one perhaps horrible, perhaps hilarious moment, she has to look downstairs with a table lamp in order to figure out just what she does and doesn’t have in the equipment stakes.

It’s less the physical aspects of her existence, and more the growing sensory / conceptual aspects that are the most intriguing. Learning about human behaviour, in all its wretched forms, isn’t the same as these human-like impulses arising unbidden just because she’s wearing a human’s skin. But they're as confronting, perhaps more confronting for her than they are for the rest of us.

This leads to a moment towards the end, almost the very end, which is depressing though perhaps not inappropriate (considering the multitude of men she must have sent to their ultimate fate) where we see a moment where “she” gets to look at herself in a fashion impossible outside of a movie like this. That’s a next to final shot like none other I’ve ever seen, anywhere, anytime.

There are a lot of questions that you’re left with, not least of which is “what the fuck is any of this meant to mean?” I think it's deliberately opaque, not to prompt or provoke us to conjecture, but because spelling out the premise (the way that Michael Farber's novel does explicitly) robs the story of what would otherwise be explained by purely visual means. Much of the natural scenery of Scotland plays a part in the movie, with arresting visual following horrifying moment to be followed by another sterling image, but the novel itself was set in these places, and the author lives there, so they must mean something intrinsically to the author and the story. Director Jonathan Glazer could presumably have set the story anywhere, but chose the places the original story chose as well.

By leaving out the alien backstory, it also leaves the film free to raise certain curious kinds of parallels, many of them of a sexual politics / gendered gaze nature. She 'prowls' the streets of Glasgow looking to 'pick up' guys, dressed like a cheap streetwalker from the 1970s. She does, with the van, stuff that many of us have seen in many a serial killer movie / doco / tv series.

The way she 'seduces' the poor guy with the monstrously deformed face, who correctly derides those that hassle him as being ignorant, is by promising him basic physical contact, not even sex. When the men walk to their fate, none of it seems too strange to them, as if they're more than happy to do it. When two men meet below the surface of their 'experience', it's a literally touching moment, but one which doesn't last long.

And what happens to them? I could not rightly tell you, though it is both horrifying and beautiful. And there is a red liquid visual afterward that I couldn't explain while I was watching it, but understand now, seeing as it was intended to remind us of places that already exist in our earthly realm, where beasts of burden go for their eternal reward, with far less pleasant means.

It's an exquisitely well made and intriguing film. But it is probably very unpleasant and/or boring for those that can't stand unclear narratives or harrowing subject matter. There are two moments, one occuring on a beach with a baby, the other towards the end where it devolved into 'sexual' violence that are far nastier than I was prepared for. The first because of the alien callousness it indicated, the latter because of the human callousness, but they both belong in a flick as cold and alien as this.

Under the Skin got under my skin, a fair bit. Thankfully there's an ointment for that.

8 times there are cold, pitiless alien intelligences out there gazing down upon us, wanting our men because no-one else does out of 10

"Would you like to touch me again?" - even knowing the price they probably still would, fair executioner - Under the Skin