Active Ingredients: Bold imagery; Unsettling score and sound design
Side Effects: Lack of thematic weight; Use of non-actors
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a difficult film to assimilate after seeing only once. It doesn’t offer answers, but rather tasks its viewers with unpacking its many narrative and thematic mysteries. This is a challenge I embrace from any filmmaker who respects his audience enough to issue it, and one that rewards multiple viewings, and yet I can only say that seeing Under the Skin once felt frustrating, unsatisfying and incomplete.
The film opens with a floating blue disc eclipsing another celestial body in a sea of blackness. Soon after, a figure played by Scarlett Johansson takes the identity of an exact duplicate lying unconscious in a completely white room. The implication is that an alien creature has come to earth and disguised itself in the skin of a woman. For much of the film, the alien roves the Scottish highlands in a white van, seducing men and entrapping them in a lair of eerie black pitch, until she too becomes pursued by another figure, perhaps a dissatisfied overlord from her own world.
This sketch at a synopsis reveals both the film’s obliqueness as well as director Jonathan Glazer’s bold and dramatic visual style. He employed a similar strategy in his 2004 film Birth, and, like Birth, Under the Skin features precise, often arresting images that carry visual heft instead of emotional or thematic weight. I don’t ask that Glazer resolve the mystery behind these images, but I do ask that they move me in some way. Instead, Under the Skin’s visual style feels aloof and hollow, intriguing but ultimately meaningless.
These images that combine visual boldness with narrative opaqueness have earned Glazer comparisons to Stanley Kubrick. But I’ve certainly never emerged from a Kubrick film feeling uninvolved or unprovoked. Even if we may not intellectually assimilate some of 2001’s aggressive and majestic imagery, it’s nonetheless always impactful intuitively. Under the Skin does succeed in creating a mood of otherworldly dread—thanks in large part to its angular music and disorienting sound design—but it struggles to transpose this vague sensation into a larger vision – something Kubrick surely never lacked.
To the extent that Under the Skin develops its own narrative intrigue, it involves Johansson’s encounters with men, both as hunter and hunted. Many of her attempts to pick up amorous men are filmed with hidden cameras, capturing her improvised interactions with real people who don’t know they’re in a movie. The alien skillfully gets them to respond to her overt sexual advances and lures them to their death like a venus flytrap. But one such encounter seems to provoke a change in her, and the film upends this paradigm of victimization in its final act.
The use of hidden cameras is another bold and unapologetic decision of Glazer’s, but of a different kind. Ostensibly, they provide a spontaneity and volatility that the film’s abstract imagery and controlled tracking shots lack. While it’s true that the hidden cameras allow Glazer to capture unaffected and sincere “performances” from the men Johansson encounters, the focus is so unerringly directed to the alien’s plot that this sincerity is never fully mined.
Compare these scenes against Werner Herzog’s experiments with non-actors, or more directly, a tender and elegant encounter in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. In that film, the director picked up a young soldier, and engaged him in conversation, observing his endearing shyness and showing genuine interest in his personality. This footage was later intercut with an actor’s responses in the final film. Taste of Cherry is significantly altered by Kiarostami’s encounter with a real person; by ceding control to chance, he captured a moment of genuine and affecting humanity.
While Glazer may not be interested in “humanity,” the intrusion of real Scotsmen into his film yields little more than what actors could have provided. Perhaps the predatory use of hidden cameras represents the very themes the film only hints at exploring, but their aesthetic of realism does not square with Glazer’s otherwise surreal and grandiose impulses.
Under the Skin is ambiguous, strange, and formally daring, qualities that typically reward multiple viewings. I can only hope, then, that I find more under its skin in the future.