The Most Beautiful Fraud: Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is, and I mean to do her no disservice by saying so, more a movie star than an actress.  She is one of those rare individuals in Hollywood who has attained a status so iconic that whether or not she actually delivers a good performance or a bad one is almost beside the point.  However, she is also still young and still adventuresome, and she has been willing to work with a number of directors who are well aware of her status as a movie star, but are themselves clever enough to want to play around with that idea.  The last movie I saw featuring Ms. Johansson — I say featuring for a reason — was Spike Jonze’s Her, in which she plays the disembodied voice of a computer operating system.  She is, essentially, a machine that is designed to have emotions — or, if not to actually have them, at least to provide a simulacrum of them that may as well be real; but this conceit almost seemed secondary to the audacity of Jonze’s decision to take someone who is, after all, widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful women and have her star in a romantic movie where she cannot be seen at any time.

I found Her to be interesting but unsatisfying, a little too in love with its own conceits while not quite willing to explore them and their meanings in enough depth.  Jonathan Glazer’s new sci-fi/horror piece, Under the Skin, is vastly more successful, but it toys with a strikingly similar premise — and an equally daring use of Scarlett Johansson, the movie star.  In the film, which begins with one of the most hypnotic and compelling opening sequences I’ve seen in years, Johansson portrays an unnamed and enigmatic creature who takes on human skin.  A blackened, skeletal thing, she (?) adopts the appearance of a dead streetwalker and visits nightclubs, bars, and street corners all throughout Scotland, picking up a largely indistinguishable group of rootless single men and luring them back to her home.  There, brought in by the promise of easy sex with a beautiful girl, they go willingly to their deeply mysterious deaths, sucked into a black liquid pool and, apparently, harvested for their bodily components.

After a few such encounters, Johansson picks up a savagely deformed young man and, apparently taking pity on him, releases him from the deathtrap.  Realizing she has crossed a line, she flees deeper into the northlands; as she is pursued by her keeper (another nameless figure who takes on the appearance of a stern Eurobiker), she attempts small gestures of humanity (eating a slice of pie, having sex with a kind man who finds her wandering cold and alone), but to no avail.  In the end, she meets with a fate that she cannot comprehend; the ending of the movie is bizarre, repulsive, moving, and entirely unexpected, and it closes with a visual as stunning as the one that began it.

All this is just plot, though, and plot is one of the least accessible things about Under the Skin.  I have not read the book upon which it is based, but while each scene is explicable at least in part, Glazer certainly abstracts them to an extreme degree, so that some things that happen don’t make sense until later scenes, or until the end of the movie, or even hours later, in moments of undistracted contemplation.  This is part of what is frustrating about it, but it is also part of what is magnificent about it.  It is that rarest of things, a genre film that is willing to jettison the fussy tedium of plot point after plot point that sinks so many genre efforts.  Glazer is not delivering a purely surrealist film here, though it is crammed with images and sounds that could only truly come from dreams; instead, he has simply refused to make the genre elements entirely literal and explicable (and, therefore, dull).  It is certainly a science-fiction film, but there are only a few moments — most of them at the very beginning and the very end — that can easily be identified as bearing any hallmarks of that genre.  It is also clearly a horror film — there are moments of sublime terror, and overall, the movie is extraordinarily disturbing, keeping the viewer ill at ease for almost its entire running time.  But there is very little gore, and what death occurs is abstracted in the extreme; it is only at the end that a truly and explicitly horrific act occurs, and it is not at the hands of an alien.

Much of Under the Skin‘s pleasures are sensual in nature.  The sound editing is some of the most impressive I’ve encountered since Todd Haynes’ Safe, almost 20 years ago; the way small environmental sounds are ramped up to a distracting volume when Johansson is alone, and sublimated to the point of inaudibility when she is out in public, is subtle but unmistakable.  The score, too, is constantly impressive; written by Mica Levi, the talented front woman of British indie act Micachu & the Shapes, it conjures everything from Bernard Herrmann in Hitchcock mode to Krzysztof Penderecki.  The visual style is sleek but never artificial, and the movie as a whole is exquisitely paced; with its flashes of Kubrick’s 2001, Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, it has a distinctly 1970s vibe, without ever coming across as mere homage or recreation.  It is by no means a movie without precedents, but its visual and tonal language add up to much more than the sum of influences.

Just as Glazer plays with the reality of what is happening in the narrative, showing us the development of the story but never doing so in a prosaic enough way that it’s easy to get our hooks into, so too are we left somewhat on our own when figuring out what, if anything, all of it means.  Since seeing the film, I have encountered the notion that it is meant to be a metaphor for factory farming, that it is a feminist reclamation of the classic sci-fi trope of the ‘body-snatcher’; that it is a profound meditation on the idea of rape culture and/or the ‘male gaze’.  I think all these interpretations are plausible without being entirely correct.  For myself, I seemed to detect elements of commentary on the nature of sex work; certainly Johansson is meant to be bait for johns, her clothes come from a murdered prostitute, her killings illustrate the way random sex can be easily turned into horror, and it is impossible not to think of her scowling guardian in the role of a pimp.  (The comparison to Jeanne Dielman carries over here, too; in both films, the seemingly emotionless woman is jolted into a shocking new perception of reality by an unexpected emotional reaction.)  But Glazer hasn’t made a movie that’s so easily reduced to a message; its significance, like its action, are there to be sussed out, not to be immediately apprehended.

As to Johansson:  it is somewhat difficult to assess whether what she is doing is great acting.  In a pure reversal of Her, she is visible on screen almost every moment, but she has almost nothing to say; she’s almost completely silent in the second half of Under the Skin.  She is meant to convey an easy sexuality that makes her a perfect lure, a blank-faced incomprehension of everything outside of her prescribed duties; and, finally, a frustrated lack of comprehension, once she actually becomes able to comprehend things.  She does all these things extremely well (she also doesn’t blink in the whole movie, which is a hell of a feat, if nothing else), but it is also not a role that is imbued with the kind of internal struggle and emotional range that we often associate with ‘good acting’.  But the way she indulges the reality of her own superstar status fills the role with interest.  This may be a function of her unusual stardom:  while extremely attractive, Johansson has never been a typical Hollywood beauty, and here, she embraces that with no small degree of selflessness:  she is gangly, awkward, clumsy, with a hint of a belly and inexplicable bruises.  She gazes into the mirror, naked, after having her odd emotional awakening, agog at what she sees, as if she is seeing her body for the first time; but to us, it is impossible to shake the reality that it is the body of Scarlett Johansson.  Glazer’s most daring and successful gambit is in scenes where she picks up strangers in dance clubs and discos:  miked up and surreptitiously filmed, she approaches men, improvising her lines, and drawing them out — these are not actors, but real people she picked up in bars, who did not recognize her as the movie star she is.  The ease with which they allow themselves to be seduced by a stranger is amusing to us as an audience, entirely fitting to the story, and more than a little creepy.  It is true that the strength of the approach is that we are seeing this story of alien infiltration from the alien perspective; but it is more complicated and less obvious than that.  We are watching her perspective; we are seeing her develop it and cope with it.  It is her eyes, through our eyes, that reflect the alienation.

Under the Skin is Glazer’s first film in a decade.  I had seen his debut, the British gangster riff Sexy Beast, and found it wanting; it read to me like a fairly typical specimen of the form buoyed by a single alarming performance that didn’t have a lot of staying power.  His second feature, Birth, I have still not seen, though it’s been recommended to me by several people as something quite unique and special.  If this film — deliberate, meticulous, enigmatic, and vivid — is any indication of what he’s capable, I hope he doesn’t take as long to bring us his next one.  It’s a lot to process, and it stays with you long after you’ve seen it; a good estimation of its virtues likely will require multiple viewings.  But there are few movies I’ve seen this year that I am as eager to see again; I can’t imagine its spell will easily be broken.



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