Scarlett Johansoon plays an alien that takes on human form, who commences a quest of seducing men as 'she' travels throughout Scotland.
TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited follow-up to his radiant 2004 film Birth, opens with a blinding shot of light. Blinding as in you can’t look directly at it—at least I couldn’t—without physical discomfort, a feeling of danger. The light gives way, during a trippy prologue, to a series of vaguely planetary silhouettes, more bright flashing lights, a sort of celestial birthing canal resembling a camera lens, and then, finally, the perfect circle of a human iris. A score of histrionic, atonal strings complete the aggressively disorienting mood. Rather than priming the audience for the strange tale of alien visitation to come (though it does that too), this initial burst of aggression suggests what follows will communicate chiefly through tone and texture, even physical sensation.
As an allegory of desire, Under the Skin is too diffuse to get very far.
From this very eventful void, we land in Scotland, where a frightening man in a motocross outfit pulls a female body from a ditch. A naked Scarlett Johansson, wearing a glorious black wig, is next seen stripping this body, which resembles her, and donning her clothes. After a trip to a mall for makeup and more clothes, Johansson begins cruising the streets of what might be Glasgow in a van. Setting the film in Scotland provides Glazer, who mentioned in his introduction being only roughly inspired by Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, with some added value for English-speaking viewers. Johansson’s alien speaks with a faintly British accent, but when she engages local men—and only men—dialect and thick accents make them near incomprehensible.
Glazer chooses his moments to press on the alien quality of certain human environments and behaviours, beginning with the mall, then a teeming nightclub, then throngs of football fans, pouring through the streets in matching scarves. For the most part, however, he stays close to 'Laura" (the name Johansson’s character is given in the credits), and her mission. What Laura knows and doesn’t know, especially at the beginning, is not clear. In ankle boots, tight acid wash jeans, and a cropped fake fur jacket, she appears dressed, as the Brits say, to pull. And pull she does, targeting men on their own, with no immediate plans.
Johansson, never a particularly nuanced actress, is a marvel to watch in these scenes. Her blank, put-on sexuality is a perfect fit for a creature built only to seduce (and not, as we learn later, actually have sex). She must play the pick-up artist, chatting up suddenly vulnerable-seeming young lads. She offers compliments and flirty propositions like a kind of gorgeous creep, repeating almost everything her victims say with pointed affability. Glazer lingers on the men: in a horrifying, extended seashore scene, Laura watches a lone male swimmer emerge from the surf like Ursula Andress. The men are objects, but of what kind?
As an allegory of desire, Under the Skin is too diffuse to get very far. Laura leads the men back to an isolated cottage whose second floor is a kind of crude oil abyss. The men follow her, stripping down to their erections, keeping their eyes on Laura, the dead-eyed dream object, with no sense of her own motivation, much less remorse. That is, until she targets a disfigured man, who is overwhelmed by the beautiful stranger’s attention.
'Dreaming"¦dreaming," the disfigured man murmurs as Laura leads him into the abyss. 'Yes," Laura replies, 'Yes, we are." Their encounter marks a shift in Laura; something human in her stirs, and becomes sensitive to human frailty, the way rock engages sympathetically with bone, to create a fossil. Laura strays from her mission, and attempts to enter the world not as a predator but as a young woman. Which is to say she becomes the prey, subject to the best and worst humans can do. With very little dialogue and a story rife with black holes a sci-fi nerd could fly a spaceship through, Under the Skin manages to fulfill the promise of its prologue, burrowing under the viewer’s skin without pretense, or the benefit of Laura’s bedside manner. Its ultimate allure, like hers, is protean. And like her it displays an alien bravery, more human for its failures.