Ten years after Birth either impressed or upset audiences, uncompromising filmmaker Jonathan Glazer blasts back into movie theaters with one of the strangest science fiction films ever. Under the Skin follows an alien disguised as a woman (Scarlett Johansson) cruising the streets of Scotland in a big van. She’s looking for men. She wants their skin, and she’s armed with her sex appeal.
This could sound like a variation of Species, which featured another beautiful celeb playing a man-eater, but Under the Skin is so focused on mood over narrative clarity, it feels like an art film. It’s the perfect approach for science fiction. An alien subject should feel alien. Few seem to recall that George Lucas made such a grand first impression with THX 1138 because he presented a future world made incomprehensible on purpose. He did not have characters explain the weird TV shows they watched or how a holding cell can be a pure white backdrop and nothing else.
Under the Skin has a similar moment, except the background is black. Once the alien, who we come to know as “Laura,” has caught her prey and lures him past the front door of some decrepit, boarded up home, the screen jumps to the black background. Laura walks backward, peeling off her clothes slowly. The man strips naked and stays in steady pursuit of the temptress. With his penis erect and only blackness surrounding them, it is as if desire has metaphorically given way to tunnel vision. Nothing else matters but the beautiful, curvy woman stripping before him. He never seems to notice that with every step he takes, he sinks deeper into the blackness. Laura stops walking backward and removing her clothing only when the top of the man’s head disappears below her toes.
There are several variations of this scene, and they begin with Laura pulling up to solitary men with the pretense of asking for directions. What she really wants to know is whether anyone will miss them once they are gone. After hearing the right answers, she will invite them in her van. There’s an odd naturalism to the acting during these scenes because, it turns out, the director used hidden cameras to shoot them while he and a few crew members hid in the back of the truck. Johansson the actress seemed unrecognizable to the unsuspecting men she pulled up to under a short, puffy brunette wig, as she ad-libbed many of these chats with a London accent. The idea that these scenes were shot with hidden cameras adds a meta-layer of creep factor to an already uncanny movie.
Johansson dives into the challenge with gusto, working off her environment and situation more so than acting off a fellow actor. It’s almost like acting at gunpoint, and she exposes a layer of vulnerability that’s both chilling and enchanting. It helps that her character only speaks when she needs to. Her warmest exchanges involve figuring out her prey. There’s one incredible moment on a beach where she tries to seduce a swimmer who is trying to rescue a drowning couple, which reveals her single-mindedness to ominous effect. The man leaves her at the shore, the couple’s crying baby sits in the distance. Laura’s eyes are always fixed on the swimmer. The camera observes the botched rescue from a helpless but observational distance. Even after the scene has ended, Glazer amps the dread up a notch by cutting away later that night to the screaming toddler left alone to languish by the shore, the merciless sea lapping ever so closer to him. This is one unsettling movie.
Glazer came to feature film from a background in commercial and later music video production. That school of filmmaking has given us such fascinating filmmakers as David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, among others. Just like these filmmakers, Glazer understands how to present narrative and mood beyond traditional story arc. After all, he’s the guy behind the narratively obtuse yet still eerie Radiohead video “Karma Police:”
Also, based on gut, I wondered if he directed this startling video for “Rabbit In Your Headlights,” a collaboration between Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke and the trip-hip duo UNKLE. He did. It happens to feature an amazing bit of acting by Denis Lavant, an actor well-known for pushing his physical limits and working with another inventive director, Leos Carax:
As a man from music videos, Glazer knows how to use music in his cinema. His earlier films, Sexy Beast and Birth have their moments with music, but Under the Skin stands as his strongest melding between score and visuals yet. During the opening sequence alone, Mica Levi’s soundtrack captivates. Fading up from silence, strings rapidly chug and vibrate like some deconstructed version of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. A swelling electronic drone fades up until the strings fade out, leaving only the humming drone. Throughout you are left to wonder about the visual accompaniment, as a point of red light and the iris of an eye seem to eclipse. The backdrop is clinically white. There may be a needle. The only concrete hint of what might be happening is in the title of Levi’s piece on the film’s soundtrack: “Creation.” Throughout the movie music recurs for both ambiance (variations of the spine-tingling sing-song melody accompanying the scenes in the black room) and illuminating the character’s development (a gradual, lush warmth develops in tracks like “Love”).
Glazer is indeed a brilliant stylist, but underneath his style lies a complicated ambivalence toward humanity. The film alludes rather directly to the perils of casual sex and the blindness to consequences caused by lustful desire. It’s a statement that starts feeling redundant were it not for the variation of how many articles of clothing Laura removes in the recurring scene inside the black void and the deeper the director allows the viewer to see into the darkness of where these men end up (it’s a disquieting revelation accompanied only by nearly silent underwater sonics that will leave some viewers feeling a bit claustrophobic).
If predatory Laura embodies the dangerous side of hook-ups, a change will occur alluding to a redeeming, non-judgmental humanity that arises when Laura’s last victim emerges (Adam Pearson*). He’s the ultimate lonely man. He only goes to the store at night, wearing a hood to hide a face disfigured by tumors. A kink arises from her choice of this victim that puts her on the run. The only one in pursuit seems to be a man on a motorcycle who, at the start of the film, gave her the skin she has donned to roam this world. The motorcyclist (who happens to be played by Irish star motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) rides a sleek crotch rocket and wears a full leather riding suit. He looks like an interstellar traveler even though his garb is nothing that would appear out-of-the-ordinary on earth. There are moments when his presence seems to call too much attention to itself. Whether he catches up to her or not maybe does not matter, but who he is might have helped add a bit more substance to his relationship with Laura and his stake in her. Still, the distant high-speed rides featuring McWilliams are one of the film’s many invigorating, kinetic visuals.
Further on in Laura’s solitary growth, something human emerges from melding with her skin. It’s important to consider a brief scene early in the film, when Laura removes the clothing from her deceased doppelgänger. Though seemingly lifeless, the body sheds a single tear as Laura undresses her. This could be seen as an allusion to human awareness carrying on through the skin. Otherwise, it feels difficult to understand why Laura seems to have a change of heart about her mission.
The attempt at transformation goes rather tragically for her, however. She cannot use her body to enjoy the human pleasures of chocolate cake or sex. Despite her human skin, it is nothing but superficial. Between two extremely different encounters between two different men during the film’s third act, her story turns heartbreaking. Though first portrayed as a predator, Laura earns the viewer’s sympathy in small steps, from tripping in the street to being swarmed by drunk girls to taking in a damaged soul and paying him compliments he’s probably never heard. The film drops more of these bits until pummeling the viewer with a well-earned tragic finale.
In the end, science fiction has never felt more enthralling. Glazer obscures narrative enough to create the feeling of threat simply with the unexplained. Levi’s soundtrack— her first— stands as one of cinema’s greatest scores to amp up the creepy atmosphere, and Glazer couples it with equally disturbing imagery that will remain hard to shake long after leaving the theater. Here’s a film where one can honestly say, “You’ve never seen anything like this.”
Under the Skin runs 108 minutes and is Rate R (It’s gory and Scarlett Johansson famously does several full nude scenes). It starts May 15 at Miami Beach Cinematheque and the following day Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale and The Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood.