“I just… wanted to get away from it all.
Yeah? Why here?
Because it’s… It’s nowhere.”
I was fortunate enough to see Under the Skin as part of a film class screening. This is certainly the type of film that begs to be discussed, and I’m glad I received input from my fellow students (many much more knowledgeable than myself) who both loved and despised the film. While it may be unexciting to say that I’m somewhere in the middle, I’d concede that I certainly lean more towards love over hate in this case. My immediate reaction was an intense fascination with the film and its choices, but I also wouldn’t want to watch this film again for a while. Such is often the case with an unconventional narrative structure, so I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the movie. Regardless of how much I think you’ll enjoy it, I would definitely recommend it as a viewing experience (with other people, if possible).
Under the Skin follows an unnamed woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who drives around Glasgow picking up men in her car. Once she lures them into her home with the hinted promise of sex, she leads them to a strange, abstract sort of punishment that I’d best not spoil in detail. These antics take up the majority of the film, until an interesting turning point for the last third of the movie which explores new themes in a dramatic shift for Johansson’s character and her goals. Interestingly enough, Johansson actually drove around Glasgow picking up men in her car, with the scenes filmed by hidden camera. Nearly all of the actors in the film are nonprofessional, and their reactions in these car ride scenes are completely genuine. The film doesn’t have much more that’s worth noting in terms of plot, aside from a few neat twists that are best experienced through viewing the film itself.
Before I dive into an analysis of the film (and what a daunting task that has become), I should praise director Jonathan Glazer for the artistry and cinematic talent that he brings to the table with Under the Skin. Sound design (all by the composer Micachu) seems to stand out the most, with a terrifying little number recurring throughout the film to foreshadow danger and violence. Sudden auditory contrasts along with smooth shifts of music throughout the film enhance the mood and help guide the viewer into a more grounded (although still uncertain) experience. The special effects are also top notch, with the film’s science fiction elements matching that of just about any film I’ve seen thus far, but with a slick, darker ambiance that helps the film stand out among sci-fi pieces of similar concepts.
If you’re trying to unwrap Under the Skin, I think sex is a good place to start. Nudity and other scenes of arousal and foreplay serve as a jarring, terrifying recurrence throughout the film, signifying violence and suffering to come. Johansson brings the most sexually revealing but also least “sexy” portrayal of any character she’s done before. Glazer plays smartly on his leading actress’s stigma as a sex symbol, and he uses her to comment on the perception of such woman. While it’s unclear exactly what Johansson’s goals are throughout the film, it seems that Glazer is attempting to speak to objectification and cultural views towards women and sex. Many analyses for the film view it solely as a commentary on rape culture, where role reversal is used to punish the male characters. I don’t know if Glazer’s message is as simple as that, but this is a film that begs its audience to at least think about these themes.
If the film ended at about the halfway point, I think the above analysis would be far more accurate. However, Johansson’s character seeks some sort of fulfillment in the last section of the film that struck me as surprising. She dresses more comfortably, and she drops her sexual, violent advances. As a character, we’ve only seen her work towards the punishment of male characters for their sexual urges, but Glazer brings a more complex scenario to the film as it progresses past the halfway point. Johansson, who we know by this point is obviously not human (implied to be an alien), attempts a human relationship. She tries to watch television and eat cake and live the boring life of a human, however unsuccessfully. This section seemed more aimed at the human experience as a whole, something Glazer has mentioned that he was attempting to comment on with the film more than just issues of gender specifically. The near final scene depicting her as lost and alone helps us sympathize with her, and we see her struggle to find her place when no type of life seems to make sense anymore. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film, and it’s strikingly the least violent or sexual of them all. I think Under the Skin‘s greatest success is its abilities to balance these ideas: sex, longing, purpose, and what it means to be a human. Just as Johansson struggles to understand humanity from an alien’s perspective, the film’s audience is encouraged to take another look at this whole mess as well.
While the film is insightful and thought-provoking in these ways, it’s not without its flaws. The pace is deliberately slow, intentionally I believe, but often slow in a repetitive way that lends itself to a boring watch at times. Every scene has moments of insight to latch onto, but Glazer can take a while to build to his victories, and the pace can detract from the impact of his message. Even the science fiction scenes of torture and absurdity, wildly fascinating and well shot, feel a bit too several in number. While each of Johansson’s victims seems to add some new insight into the film’s greater conversation, it feels dull on a narrative level. This is a film that’s a lot of fun to think about, just not as fun to sit down and watch, and I think Glazer could definitely take another crack at structuring his story.
While I wouldn’t want to watch it again any time soon, I would definitely encourage anyone to see this film if it peaks your interest. It’s offbeat, and the unconventional narrative and visual elements may be tedious for conventional film-goers. However, it’s really not that strange of a film, and it’s a tremendous visual experience, even if it isn’t the clearest of films. I’ll never fault a film for taking risks, and for that reason alone, Under the Skin stands out as a refreshing piece of cinema.
Films Left to Watch: 918