I’ve allowed this film to settle for a few hours now, having seen it earlier at the lovely Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. The set-up, as I’m sure you’ve read if you are interested in this film, runs thus – Scarlett Johansson is an alien being who stalks the streets of Glasgow in a large white van, looking for men who are totally alone – no companions, no ties, no next of kin. She picks them up with the promise of sex, and then lures them back to a ramshackle house where they are disposed of. That’s as far as I’m going to go regarding plot spoilers. That’s all you need to know for now and that certainly covers the first half of the film’s story arc.
There’s a number of threads to discuss with this film. It’s not so much a review as a reflection. If you want to know my opinion overall; I am certainly going to buy it on DVD when it comes out, and I may go back to the cinema to see it again. That’s not to say it warrants five-stars or perfect scores. I think the quotes attributed to it calling it a masterpiece are a little overblown – for me, at this moment. But in time, I may come to agree. Rather than breaking the film down into whether I liked or disliked it, Under The Skin left me intrigued. I get it and the message it is giving the audience, but at the same time there’s a lot going on that I don’t understand. Repeat viewings will no doubt make it clear to me.
The big talking point around the film is the men whom Scarlett picks up. I was under the impression before the film that some of the men were actors and some strangers. After watching the film, I doubted whether any of them were real but, as I’ve back-read interviews and production notes, it appears that all the men involved were complete strangers, who happened to be walking the streets of Glasgow late at night and were picked up by Scarlett, who in the interests of retaining some sort of anonymity wears a wig and a fairly ordinary outfit (jeans, boots, a false fur jacket is the only real extravagance.) The reason I felt as though some of the men might’ve been actors, was from the slightly over-animated way they projected themselves. It seemed quite showy. But on reflection, it makes more sense. You might think that Scarlett Johansson pulling up in a white van and offering sex would bring about a stampede. But none of the men seem to recognise her (or if they do, they never let on), and all of them are genuinely uneasy at the prospect of being picked up by a very beautiful woman – and she is still attractive with the wig and without the usual glamour. They aren’t ‘acting’. They’re nervous. And none of them know there is a camera watching everything. It’s the natural suspicion of the part of your brain that screams ‘too good to be true.’
Obviously, there is a duality going on here, and it’s the reason Jonathan Glazer the director picked an A-list Hollywood actress to drive around the backstreets of Glasgow in this van. She is as much an alien in that environment when she’s just Scarlett. The camera rarely leaves her POV, and often hovers over her shoulder, so she sees what us mere mortals see everyday – but it’s Scarlett Johansson. There is a scene in which we watch her walk through a busy shopping centre, and no one is paying her any attention as the handicam follows her instep. We start to feel like the alien, as the crowds blankly stare ahead and pay us no heed – much like in real life.
Scarlett’s performance is great in this film. It’s a cheap gag to say that she could do emotionless well – actually, it’s fantastic acting on her part. Her small talk with (most) of the men she meets is robotic and staccato. She even walks in a slightly strange way that suggests someone still learning how to be a human effectively. For the most part, she remains focused and yet coldly distant. When confronted with a real crowd of football fans blocking the road in front of her, either travelling to or from a game, she looks over the heads of the mass of green and white scarved humanity and calmly looks for a turning.
These are all production technicalities though – talking points for the IMDB trivia page. What the film does have is atmosphere. Much of it comes from the cinematography; grimy and bleak, garish neon lights past 1am and (in what is probably one of the more horrifying scenes) the coldest, most inhospitable beach ever. Later on, when she leaves the city for the forests, it is still Scotland in winter – wind, snow and knee deep mud. But the greatest asset the film has is the soundtrack, which is astonishingly chilling. The film only has four ‘themed’ tunes at most, but they are all very effectively composed and utilized. The throbbing, minimalist heartbeat as she lures another victim through the house. The distorted bleeps and clanking groans. It instantly brings to mind films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eraserhead, also Stalker; films where the music wasn’t just background but front and centre in the drama.
I’m going to finish up, and if that seems vague, it’s for those who want to see it and haven’t. I don’t want to reveal too much but writing another ten paragraphs of dancing around the facts can be wearisome to read. So I’ll go back to some of the things that have been written about the film. Firstly, one quote I do agree on from the poster, is the word ‘unclassifiable.’ Broadly speaking, it is a science-fiction film, but I think that is an oversimplification. In the Venn diagram of genres, it has just as much area shaded by psychology, and reality. One of the great things about the film is that nothing is explained. Nothing makes any kind of sense. Certain things happen and you just accept them. That all this unreality should exist, bumping up so closely against our own tangible reality only serves to make the film so unsettling, like waking up to discover that 2 + 2 = 5 and always has done. It’s also been called a horror, and there are certainly horror elements but the horror is psychological. There is a very emotionally distressing scene on a beach, but a total absence of gore. The BBFC rates it 15 for frequent nudity and infrequent sex (more on those in the next paragraph), but nothing about gore or violence because there isn’t any. Again, I’m being vague, but when it comes to the ‘disposal’ part of the story there is probably more graphic violence and symbolism from one of the Cybermen scenes in Doctor Who. And yet, when you do see how the men are disposed of, it is somehow more insidious and alarming, without being graphic and squelchy.
Last point. It cannot be ignored that Scarlett does spend a portion of this film in her underwear and/or naked, and I’ve read some articles that call her a sexy siren or refer to the film as somehow being erotic in the headline. I say this as someone who thinks Scarlett Johansson is one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked this planet, but if you find this film sexy there is something wrong with you. It is a completely sexless, un-erotic experience, an accurate portrayal of internal castration. The film is so odd, the soundtrack so haunting, and the cinematography so dark that any spark of fire down there is swiftly extinguished.
This is a film that perhaps requires patience, and I’m sure some will find it simply pretentious – just Species with A-levels. Many of the scenes are quite slow paced, and the dialogue is minimalist and largely improvised anyway. But there are thematic similarities with many of my favourite films – 2001’s use of sounds and silence, The Machinist’s noir filming, ditto Taxi Driver where there are other more obvious parallels, Stalker and Solaris’s alien strangeness of something out of this world being recognisable, plus the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw and Eraserhead. If you like at least two or more from that list, I recommend you track it down immediately.