In the cold, wet, whimsy-less regions of Scotland, a woman prowls the streets, seeking the company of unattached, easily-forgotten men. The woman is played by Scarlett Johannson; only her skin is human.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is an incredibly unusual film. It’s practically defiant in its shirking of the mainstream, or even its adherence to typical conventions, for instance, a plot. There barely is one. It’s an experimental and hypnotic movie that stands on the shoulders of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. It’s haunting and involving, but what is it about?
It’s ostensibly the story of an alien disguised as a woman luring men to a bizarre fate. But it’s much more about the experiences of this cold, alien being, how she affects the humans she encounters and how they affect her. It’s all at once about isolation and compassion, fear and eroticism, human and alien, but it’s not showy in the slightest about these things. The film treats its own themes with a coldness and distance that is in fact quite…alien (forgive the pun, but it’s appropriate as a description).
At the centre of it all is Scarlett Johannson’s alien protagonist, never given a name in the film. It’s a film of two halves; the first a cold, emotionless and disturbing anthology of the men she encounters, then traps in her bizarre prison (it’s really something to behold on the screen – very simple, but unusually poetic) and the other an observation of her observations of the world. After an encounter with a man with severe facial deformities who doesn’t immediately fall prey to her sexual allure, she begins to investigate what the human experience is like. We see this happening, but get no explanation of what she’s feeling. The film leaves it up to the viewers to make their own assessments there.
It’s a truly bizarre film. There is little dialogue in the film, and what little there is comes largely from the men the alien has picked up – filmed by Scarlett Johannson driving around Scotland and chatting with random pedestrians, captured on hidden cameras. As such, a lot of the time, the dialogue is incomprehensible, so thick are the accents. It’s a sinister and contemplative film – one that I’m sure will find a loving audience just as much as it will find people dismissing it as irrelevant and incomprehensible.
I know I enjoyed the film. I was intrigued and unsettled, blown away by some of the visuals, won over by its style. Its soundtrack is also something incredible, combining an otherworldly strangeness with an industrial sensibility to great effect. It’s inventive at the very least. I was a bit put off by its determination to reveal so little about itself, but kept on board by its hypnotic value and presentation.
I imagine many people will react badly to Under the Skin but for what it’s worth it’s an odd, unsettling experience led by Scarlett Johannson’s strong, semi-silent performance, and Glazer’s unusual approach. I found it utterly captivating.