Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Under the Skin

Film Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2013; Directed by Jonathan Glazer)

A distant pinprick of light grows and shifts out of black oblivion. Unsettling synths and strings vibrate menacingly as the light focuses into a beam, then a ring, then a circle. Finally, it settles on a form: the iris of an unblinking human eye. The eerie electronic cricket-song on the soundtrack persists and melds with the pronunciation of basic but only ephemerally-related words as the opening title appears.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is constructed of such minimalist, ambiguous imagery, but its narrative implications at least are relatively clear. A strong, silent motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) fetches a young woman’s lifeless body from a ditch, carrying it towards a white van. Now in a blindingly white infinite space, another woman (Scarlett Johansson) methodically, unsympathetically undresses the girl and dons her clothing. She finds her way to a mall to purchase more clothes and makeup. Trawling Glasgow’s streets in the van, she pretends to be lost and asks a series of single and apparently alone men for directions as a pretense to get them into her vehicle and seduce them into joining her at undisclosed locations of absolutely blackness (the visual inversion of the initial white space where she dresses herself in the dead woman’s garments, rather than undressing men). There, teasing them with disrobed sexual promise, they are swallowed by an invisible pool of liquid, to be suspended naked until they are gradually consumed, their remnants floating in the abyss like the skin of a burst balloon.

If Under the Skin‘s premise presents as a sort of arthouse Species, then the film itself is a whole other creature. Lean, philosophical, and observant, Glazer’s text is less concerned with the taxonomical detail of Johansson’s alien femme fatale and her mission of male entrapment than it is with casting a cool, detached eye on the concept of human sympathy. The never-named woman possesses none of it, staring out her windows at potential prey like a raptor on its hunting perch. She shies away from targets with hints of connection with others, but this seems more like a tactic of self-preservation (the lone hunter evading the collective strength of the herd) than an empathetic minimization of the collateral emotional damage caused by her mysterious, chastely erotic predation.

The depths of her lack of empathy are demonstrated while attempting to capture a Czech man in a wetsuit at a rocky inlet. A chain-reaction situation develops, as the man in the wetsuit tries to save a man from the waves who is trying to save his partner, who was trying to rescue their dog. When the Czech man is beached, he is exhausted despite his failure to prevent the tragedy, but Johansson strides ups to him, chooses a rock to brain him with, and drags him off to her jet-black den (presumably). A wailing infant is left alone on the beach, ignored by the woman and later by her motorcyclist ally. The level of human tragedy invoked in this scene is tremendous, but for the woman, it’s a chance to pick off easy prey without the need for erotic seduction.

Of course, when the middle act conflict arises, it’s grounded in an unexpected irruption of empathy. The woman can’t bring herself to consign a facially disfigured loner (Adam Pearson) to the depths of the dark pool, releasing him before going on the run from the motorcyclist, who is an enabler of her mission but apparently also an enforcer of its prerogatives. Where this choice, spurred on by a moment of self-reflection before a mirror, leads the woman, I leave for the intrigued potential viewer to discover.

Glazer, who also wrote Under the Skin‘s script with Walter Campbell (based on Michel Faber’s novel, though apparently loosely), is alternately in complete control of his images and willing to trust to the magic of spontaneity and improvisation. Johansson’s encounters with people on the streets were unscripted and often shot with hidden cameras and non-actors. They feel naturalistic and unforced, while the hyper-stylized milieu of the black room and the pool possess a heightened simplicity that maginifies the significance of the ideas suggested there. Johansson, not an actress much capable of convincing introspection even at her best, is perfectly applied, accruing an incremental corporeal self-awareness. She arrives at a costly approximation of human empathy via her own adopted human form, through an understanding of the nature and limits of her own body. Johansson is excellent at regarding herself while we regard her, though her gaze is not so fraught as ours.

Sexual and gender politics are the churning undercurrent of Under the Skin, with a succubus-type female being trapping male prey in the net of her desirability and then becoming subject to assault and violation at the hands of her former prey when she drops her predatory pre-condition. Her incipient vulnerability is memorably visualized by Glazer late in the film: while sleeping in a cabin shelter in the woods, Johansson is superimposed on the swaying treetops of the forest. She is alone in the wilderness, literally and figuratively.

Even if the implications about the nature of gender and sexual roles and their effects on the freedom of the body are not easily misconstrued, Glazer leaves precisely how to take those implications entirely up to his audience. He crafts a singular, artistically resonant statement with Under the Skin that never panders or proscribes its meanings while diffusing the most unsettling of those meanings into its dominant haunted tonality (greatly enhanced by Mica Levi’s unnerving score). The film ends with a plume of smoke dissipating into the wintry air, a fading dilution of materiality to contrast with the opening scenes’ luminous Big Bang. Our certainties of self-awareness dissipate along with that smoke in the face of this vision.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. April 13, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Great piece. But I disagree where you say it’s less concerned with her as it is with human sympathy. I read the whole film to be about fear of the female form, particularly castration anxiety. There are rpeated

  2. April 13, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    ^accidently pressed post

    …there is repeated womb imagery like the black room (I think the liquid is supposed to be amniotic fluid), the van, and the beach/ lake (water being a well-known symbol of birth). When she begins to learn humanity she learns female passivty, then she turns from predator to prey.

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