Under the Skin (2013) – A chilly meditation on being human…
You spend a lot of time gazing into the eyes of Scarlett Johansson’s alien temptress in Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s obtuse adaptation of Michael Faber’s acclaimed novel. You also spend a long time scrutinizing the expression on her face, which is usually as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, does this creature have a soul? What is she thinking – or is she just computing? The facial expressions are like ones we use, but does she share any comparable emotions with us?
Questions such as these arise because Glazer has stripped the story to the absolute minimum. We are given almost no information about Johansson’s character Laura. In his last film, Birth,Glazer left it up to the viewer to decide exactly what had happened. In Under the Skin, he pares it down even further, so there is almost no dialogue to help us along. We’re left alone to draw our own conclusions.
We can surmise from the trippy opening sequence that Laura is an alien creature either born or created, then arriving on earth. A man in motorbike leathers procures the dead body of a young woman, which will be the newcomer’s disguise. We don’t learn much about the motorcyclist, other than he looks mean and is clearly one of her species, and could be her minder, lackey, or supervisor.
Once she assumes the body of the dead woman, she sets about her task. She drives around the streets of Glasgow in a white transit van, hunting lonely men. She lures them into her lair with the prospect of sex, where they sink into a mysterious goo and get processed for food.
While it seems that Laura is created solely for this purpose, she has some autonomy. She is allowed to figure out the best way to infiltrate our society, and discover the most effective way of ensnaring her victims. Her usual M.O is to prowl the streets at night until she spots a potential mark, ask for directions, then offer the guy a lift.
Filmed candid camera-style, the pick up scenes use unsuspecting, regular men off the streets of Glasgow. Laura strikes the right tone when speaking to the men, following a line of inquisitive, lightly flirtatious questioning, while the men adapt their approach. When the van first pulls up, they talk normally. When they’re in the van, their attitude changes. They become gently courteous, responding to her questions with humorous, bantering answers. They’re playing it cool, thinking: “If I play my cards right…”
This offers a crystal clear insight on how many blokes behave when confronted with the prospect of pussy. If a handsome young man pulled up in a white van and offered a girl a lift, chances are the girl would run a mile. The guys we see don’t register the danger. They don’t notice the inherent weirdness of a hot young woman driving such a vehicle at night, offering guys lifts.
Once in Laura’s lair, they chase after her, shedding clothes, not noticing that they are sinking deeper and deeper into black muck. It made me think of Stacey Dooley’s excellent documentary about stag parties in Prague. Some of the men she interviewed shamelessly admitted to paying prostitutes extra for sex without a condom. For a certain type of man, the prospect of a quick fuck is so overpowering that they will jeopardize their own health, and their wives and future children’s, too. In Under the Skin, the men pick up the scent and follow it to their deaths.
Mica Levi’s percussive, discordant score accompanies the seduction scenes, brilliantly suggesting something both mechanical and organic, threatening but elusive, sensual yet cold-blooded.
Laura is ruthless in pursuit of her goal. Perhaps she’s on commission. In the film’s most chilling scene, she tries a change of approach. She chats up a young Czech swimmer on a beach, but is interrupted when a couple get in trouble trying to rescue their dog from the waves.
The swimmer tries to save them but fails, and collapses in the surf, exhausted. Laura sees it as a freebie, battering him with a rock (his shiny wetsuit and her brutal assault hideously evokes images of men clubbing seals) and drags him away. She doesn’t even register that the drowned couple’s infant son is left crying and alone on the beach.
Things change for Laura when she picks up a hideously deformed man and takes him back. She doesn’t seem to notice his deformity, only praising his beautiful hands. It is not clear if she takes pity on him and lets him go, or whether the goo rejects him because he’s damaged goods. Either way, Laura’s out on her arse, pursued across Scotland by motorbike guy.
Once on her own, she starts exploring her body and trying out human things. She tries food, but doesn’t like it much. A kindly stranger picks her up on a bus and offers shelter. There’s a wonderful moment when Laura is sitting on his sofa, watching Tommy Cooper’s Jar-Spoon routine on the telly. When Cooper starts “magically” making the spoon dance, an involuntary flicker of surprise flashes across her face. Right then, you realise that concepts such as happiness, magic and laughter are as alien to her as her callous hunting was to us.
Later, when the stranger takes her to bed, she gets shocked by end product, panicking and shining a light into her vagina to see what’s happened. She has used her assumed sexuality to acquire her victims, but has no experience of the act of sex, and it freaks her out.
This is a brave performance by Scarlett Johansson. Laura is a complete blank, and is exposed both literally and figuratively. Often when big stars take on more challenging roles, they sometimes “wink” to the camera. They might be tempted to delve into their usual repertoire of physical or vocal tricks, as if to reassure the viewer, as if to say: “This role’s pretty dark, but don’t worry, it’s only me!”
Johansson doesn’t wink. Laura is a blank page, and Johansson makes her intriguing while being almost expressionless throughout. She isn’t afraid to pose completely naked in front of a mirror as Laura explores her body, and I felt uncomfortable in those moments. Johansson is one of the hottest actresses on the planet, but I felt no pleasure seeing her starkers – I felt as though Glazer was goading me into lusting after her, just like her victims.
The second half could have played like a standard fish-out-of-water comedy drama. After discovering magic with Tommy Cooper, there would probably be a montage scene where the stranger teaches her to dance, introduces her to the joys of alcohol, and helps her find her favourite ice cream flavour.
Under the Skin is not Mork & Mindy, though, and after briefly experiencing some of our small joys, she gets to experience one of our worst crimes, and dies frightened and alone. In its detached way, the film celebrates what it is to be human – our males might be easy to fool because they only think with their dick, but we’re also a species that will pick someone up in the street if they fall, or risk our lives to save a stranger.
The last scenes are stark and depressing, and I found much of Under the Skin excruciatingly boring. It is a cold, cerebral work, and I thought about it for days afterwards, so connected with it intellectually. I just wish it had engaged me more emotionally. Perhaps a dancing & ice-cream eating montage would have done the trick.
Posted on 12/07/2014, in cinema, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, Reviews, sci fi, Wordpress and tagged Jonathan Glazer Under the Skin, Michael Faber Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin, Under the Skin 2013 Analysis, Under the Skin 2013 Review. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.