Strange Land in a Stranger, by Rita Cannon
It’s difficult to find a more apt word for Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi drama Under The Skin than “alienating.” Believe me, I tried – I’m well aware that when you’re dealing with a film about a literal alien, employing that particular adjective is too cute by half. But Glazer’s film is so wholly dedicated to showing us our own planet through the eyes of a stranger that no other word seems to suffice. He transforms the Scottish Highlands and the city of Glasgow into a surreal, forbidding dreamscape where human logic and morality only occasionally apply. Simultaneously, we witness our lead character, a visitor from an unnamed planet, begin to identify with earthlings in a way she never anticipated, with disastrous results. This is a weird, undulating movie that slips right out of your hands if you try to grasp any part of it too firmly.
Based on a novel by Michael Faber, Under The Skin follows an extraterrestrial who has come to Earth, taken on the form of a beautiful human woman, and uses this guise to seduce and prey upon men. The exact purpose of this mission is left unexplained, along with a lot of other things. We don’t know our protagonist’s name, what planet she hails from, or even if “she” is really the best way to refer to her. The alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, which goes a long way towards explaining how she’s able to trap so many men, but while Johansson’s otherworldly beauty is certainly a big factor in her performance, it’s far from the best thing about it. After seeing her so warm and wistful in Her, and so broadly funny in Don Jon, it’s jarring to watch her be the opposite: cold, methodical, impassive, and on the occasion she actually does feel something, so overwhelmed and stymied by it that she goes nearly catatonic. At first glance, her performance might look like a lot of blank staring, and it is that, but it’s also a feat of subtlety. Johansson has the job of keeping us interested in an increasingly loopy and unsettling story, and she does it with the significant handicaps of having very little dialogue and an obligation to steer clear of anything too identifiable with human feelings. She can’t cry, or laugh, or roll her eyes or screw up her nose, because it would close the distance between her and the people she’s dealing with. So she stares blankly. But these are some very precisely calibrated blank stares, and what she’s able to express with such a limited toolbox is astounding.
The film is full of striking images, and cinematographer Daniel Landin makes superb use of darkness and shadow. It takes place mostly at night, and long stretches are cloaked so heavily in darkness that the people and objects therein are only half visible. I actually found myself leaning forward and squinting at the screen, trying in vain to see more than Glazer was willing to show me. But rather than being a source of frustration, it’s of a piece with the rest of the film and its themes: limited understanding, curiosity betrayed by fear, and the sense that you won’t be able to see what’s out to get you until it’s too late. It also features an eerie, discordant score by experimental musician Mica Levi (better known as Micachu, of Micachu and the Shapes). Full of ominous cymbal rolls, maddening high-pitched buzzing, and a host of other sounds I don’t even feel comfortable trying to describe, it pushes the film over the edge from merely weird to viscerally upsetting.
Trying to get your head around everything that Under The Skin might be “about” is difficult. Apart from its investigations of identity, sympathy, and violence, it seems to have a lot of ideas about sex, the female body, the male gaze, and seduction as consumption/destruction. (This is the first movie in which Johansson has consented to appear nude, a fact that seems ripe for analysis all on its own.) Basically, there’s a whole hell of a lot going on here, and watching it only once seems sort of like panning for gold and giving up after only one dunk. Under The Skin is a rich, bizarre experience unlike anything I’ve seen, and I’m excited to watch it again and see what else I can find.