The New Masterpieces #4 – Under the Skin

Probably the entry in this series you were either expecting or dreading, it’s now time to discuss the supremely divisive Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin.

A loose adaptation of the Michel Faber book of the same, Under the Skin received a reworking in film by Glazer and Walter Campbell. A director with only three works under his belt, Glazer has already proven himself to be one of the powerhouse filmmakers of the century, with the taut crime-drama Sexy Beast and precise, peculiar “Nicole Kidman’s dead husband might be a little boy” picture Birth. Each terrific works in their own rights, it’s Under the Skin where Glazer has made his official stamp as one of the most interesting, unique voices working in cinema.

The movie is baffling and remarkably easy to describe. An alien takes the form of a woman and roams the streets of Scotland, where one-bye-one she captures men and kills them. Until she decides not to. If one is looking for complicated, twisty plots; this is not the movie for you. What Glazer’s Under the Skin is interested in is mood, terror and the varying degrees in which female sexuality empowers, isolates and endangers women.

So perhaps not for all.

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The nature of this beast comes right at the onset, as a startling opening features shivering stings over a stark black image where a hope of blue light can narrowly be seen, aching to grow. Then it does so with a force, as a shock of blue and white paints the screen; the score humming louder and denser with each second. This image morphing into different shapes, as murmurs of speech can be heard. Not quite words. Definitely human, or something trying to mirror what our speech might sound like. An eye forms; the single thing we are shown on screen. Large. Unflinching. Constant.

A creation has been made and it’s overwhelming. Or perhaps nonsense to you. Again, this is an art-film with a capital A-R-T. Soon, we see a man, unnamed like all in this story. The man is wearing a motorcycle jacket and is carrying an unconscious woman over his shoulder. Said woman is soon to be undressed by an already naked one in a room of pure white. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin compose a shot of negative space, as our two figures do their work. Well, one works and the other is on her back motionless, stave her terrified eyes, now open and utterly overcome with the moment. The scene comes to a close as our Female (Scarlett Johansson) stands in her new outfit, seemingly staring at the new appendages she has. In fact, The Female is looking at a tiny insect crawling upon. She studies it by merely giving her whole gaze to it. This is a look we will see again.

Over the remaining film The Female goes through so much. At first, she is but a force of quiet danger, asking strangers what they’re doing with their evenings. Glazer’s camera hovers behind The Female as she passes through a mall, faintly lower than her natural stature. It’s as if we are a child following a stranger through a crowded place. The Female learns how women of Earth look and flirt, but there is no practicing. There are no shots of The Female watching from afar. Those cues are implied, as is much in Under the Skin.

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Through this all is a dread, dull in its roar. Mica Levi’s eerie score gives some hint. Glazer keeps the cooking at a low-temperature though. The Female’s hunt is not one of clocking men on the heads with hammers. She is coy, asking for directions and always, always if the fellas are alone. An inquiry about family here. A mention of living alone there. Whatever her job is, there is no risk worth taking. If the answer isn’t to The Female’s specific needs, she merely hits the gas pedal down and drives off in the white van she uses while on the prowl.

It’s fascinating how in the early goings of Under the Skin, how predatory Johansson’s character appears, even if it has a clinical nature to it. She is more animal than human, as there seems to be no joy in her methods. The Female finds men, uses her looks, coy smile and attention to draw them in and slowly, efficiently leads them to their deaths. The ends for these guys come via a pool that looks like the thickest, deepest of oils; consuming them as they walk behind The Female’s gradual undressing. Their death is not immediate, which isn’t the same as saying there is any escape. Eventually, Glazer gives us what happens to these unwitting souls in terrifying fashion, as one, whose skin seems to have begun to chafe away, implodes like a balloon into a wispy, floating husk of skin. It all happens in a pop and will make any viewer jump, no matter how much one might know it’s coming.

Time after time, Glazer gives us images like this. In the lead up to the film’s release, a lot of chatter was made about the Kubrick-ian nature of Glazer’s techniques. While the coldness of his touch might be reminiscent, along with an ability to present literally dozens of instantly memorable images within a single feature, Under the Skin also shows why these two men are not the same. For the majority of his career, Kubrick’s releases had a kind of innate operatic sense to them. Glazer’s projects have more intimacy. There is a definite aura of in-the-moment one has with his characters; especially when Glazer wants to unnerve you. This can be done easily, by simply having one person in a van by herself suddenly having an unknown number of men shouting and trying to pound their way into her vehicle. Elsewhere, it’s much more haunting, as in the genuinely disturbing scene where The Female tries to lure yet another man, only to be witness to a woman trying to save her pet amidst the violent current of a rocky coast nearby. What’s startling with this presentation is how matter-of-factly Glazer films the desperation. We remain with The Female; at a distance. In the far edges of the frame a person screams, another attempts to assist and as a viewer, one is caught up in the anxiety of being unable to help too. If Glazer moved closer, the cinematic nature of things would come into play. As is, we are a bystander; useless as can be.

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Through it all, Johansson is terrific. A part this still in movement could be mistaken for robotic. Johnasson bares a presence here, specific to the second of how The Female needs to be. If a slight smile is needed, it is given. If a job is done; the complexion goes flat. In one instance, what can only been seen as her pseudo-handler, the aforementioned motorcycle man, confronts her silently. She stands, as a soldier, at attention. When the change comes to her psyche, and it does, Johansson carries much of the thematic weight of the picture on her shoulders, for to be a woman has its perks, along with dangers that never leave, especially if one is genetically desired.

This vulnerability initially peeks its head as The Female as dragged by a horde of – fellow? – women into a club. Their voices converge into a blur, words featuring no distinction. Lights flash. The music is everywhere. Loud. The lack of control is too real and the heart beats faster. As The Female rebels, as she must eventually do, the judgment intensifies and the onlookers increase. A slice of quiet where she tries to eat a piece of cake can’t even proceed, as either The Female doesn’t know how to actually consume food or her internal organs naturally repel them. Embarrassment and confusion takes the stage; two things better than what is to soon come.

The closing of the film comes as it must. The Female is overwhelmed, emotionally and physically, by a male pursuer. He is bigger. He is stronger. He wants and will have her. One can only be a woman for so long before this becomes something that is part of your life. Glazer is interested by the female body here, though for a film with its fair share of nudity of both sexes it’s never exploitative, it’s the complication of having that skin which makes his picture compelling. These kind of things I don’t have to fret about. As an over six-foot tall man, let alone a white man in the United States, glances aren’t even registered. They don’t need to be. I can walk down city streets at night without fretting if a conversation has ulterior motives. What Glazer does in Under the Skin is give me at least some inkling of that.

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