Ambiguous from the first shot to the last, Under The Skin is both an arthouse mood piece and a flesh-crawlingly uneasy indie science fiction film. Director Jonathan Glazer’s movie is the latest in a rarefied subgenre: the deadly female alien invader, as previously seen in such films as Devil Girl From Mars (Glazer’s film even sharing that 1954 curio’s Scottish setting), Tobe Hooper’s oddball Lifeforce and Roger Donaldson’s schlocky Species.
Yet while Under The Skin shares certain elements with those earlier films, it’s far more intimate, disturbing and powerful than all of them put together. Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, an almost silent femme fatale who roams the streets of Glasgow picking up men and kidnapping them for her own obscure and deadly ends.
What does Laura need these young men for? Who’s the heavily-built man on a motorbike who rides around in her wake? The film provides clues, but leaves us to draw our own conclusions – unlike Michael Faber’s source novel, Laura’s objectives are never made explicit.
What is plain is just how unsettling Johansson’s scenes of quiet seduction are. It’s said that some of the men who clamber into Laura’s Ford Transit van aren’t actors, but ordinary members of the public who were filmed in secret and only informed of their involvement in a movie later on, which explains why the dialogue seems so natural and strangely voyeuristic.
These scenes of are undoubtedly powerful because they’re so unusual. We’ve become conditioned to expect women to be the victims – or at least to be objects of desire – in movies. It’s extremely rare to see this situation reversed, where it’s the men who are presented as lacking in control, or helpless, or unaware of what’s about to happen to them. One or two sequences provide glimpses of the surreal fate that awaits Laura’s victims, and they’re almost breathtaking in their sheer weirdness.
Johansson, clad in a gigantic fur coat and heavy red lipstick, moves through the film like a wraith, observing and speaking only when she has to. In one horrifying and unforgettable scene, she watches a tragedy unfold with the same detachment as an earlier moment where she watched an ant march across her fingertips. It’s only later that her character begins to display even the scarcest flicker of humanity: a drop of blood on her hand leaves her apparently shaken, as does a glimpse of herself in a mirror. Could it be that her repeated contact with human beings have somehow left a bit of them under her skin, too?
The themes and meaning of Glazer’s film can be thought about and discussed at length, and certainly deserve to be. The obvious thing to take from Under The Skin is that it’s about the fleshy carnality of being a human in the modern age. Long stretches of the film take place against a depressingly familiar British backdrop of chain stores – of H Samuel and Next and Boots, of family pubs offering two breakfasts for £10 – the kind of places you can find in any generic city up and down the country. It touches on the anonymity of modern living, of how we judge one another superficially, by appearances, without knowing or particularly caring what dark reservoirs of emotion – or worse, absence of emotion – might lie beneath.
Glazer, whose previous films include Sexy Beast and Birth, is on very different territory here, channelling the high-contrast minimalism of George Lucas’ debut feature THX 1138, the otherworldliness of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the icy sexuality of David Cronenberg’s Crash.
It’s a sci-fi film refreshingly light on genre trappings – though its handful of special effects are quite stunning. What’s most interesting is the way Glazer deals with adult themes without a hint of titillation – the scenes of nudity and sex have the sterile feeling of a scientific study about them, as though we’re viewing everything on a slide through the lens of a microscope. The whole film is shot from Laura’s perspective: an alien’s-eye view of a strange species and their curious divisions between sexes.
Under The Skin is a difficult, incredibly disturbing film from beginning to end, but that’s why it’s also a brilliant one. Some cinemagoers will almost certainly find its lack of a relatable protagonist, or an obvious story structure, or even character motivations frustrating, and in many ways, Glazer’s film’s like Shane Carruth’s similarly obscure Upstream Color. But movies should show us new things, or take us to strange places we’re reluctant to visit, and Under The Skin does exactly this. It feels like something from a nightmare; a horrifying portrait of the id.
Under The Skin is out in UK cinemas on the 14th March.
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