Watching “Under the Skin”
“Under the Skin” is a movie that poses questions, but seldom provides answers.
It makes you ask: Why is Scarlett Johansson — as a predatory alien named Laura — luring young men to their deaths? What happens to their bodies? Who is that guy on the motorcycle who fixes her mistakes? Is he an alien, too? And so on.
“Under the Skin” is a film that keeps viewers off balance, engaging them with striking imagery and sounds (the soundtrack is amazing), while withholding easy explanations and basic information about motivation and character. It is a challenging, chilly almost avant-garde film that will frustrate some and fascinate others. As for myself, well, I was fascinated.
In its opening scenes, “Under the Skin” depicts the mysterious man on a motorcycle retrieving a corpse from the waterfront. It then cuts to an all-white room, where a naked woman removes the clothes from the dead body and puts them on, transforming into the sexy femme fatale played by Johansson. The film then follows Laura as she drives around Glasgow, stopping to ask directions from young men and occasionally bringing them back to a nondescript house.
Once inside, things get surreal: The men strip off their clothes and follow Laura, sinking into some kind of pool as they do so, seemingly unable to resist or protest. The first scene where this occurs prompted my boyfriend to ask, “Did that really happen?” To which I replied, “Something happened, but I’m not sure exactly what.”
In other words, the film might look and feel like a dream, but the events unfolding on the screen reflect the film’s reality. Nobody is going to wake up at the end and discover that it was all just a nightmare.
Which is what the film often feels like. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, “Under the Skin” is beautiful and intoxicating, but also creepy and disturbing. In one scene, Laura watches a woman swimming in a strong ocean current, struggling in the water. Her husband dives in after her, and also begins to drown. A surfer jumps in and rescues the husband, who runs back into the sea. Both the man and woman drown while their toddler son cries on the beach. The surfer is exhausted and cannot get up off the shore. Rather than help him, Laura smashes his skull with a rock, then leaves the scene, ignoring the toddler, who eventually perishes in the rising tide.
If nothing else, this tragic series of events teaches us that Laura is truly alien — a being from another world, oblivious to human pain and suffering. She is a heartless character, though that changes midway through the film, when she attempts to seduce a deformed man. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! I’m not sure whether she takes pity on him and releases him, or whether there’s something about him that enables him to survive her deadly seduction ritual. But survive he does.
Soon after, Laura seems to become more human, or to at least desire to experience human things. She tries and fails to eat cake. She befriends a nice young man, but is unable or unwilling to consummate their relationship and flees into the woods. At this point, Laura has gone from being a predator to prey; when a logger assaults her, she is unable to defend herself, which is a bit strange, considering her supernatural killing abilities.
“Under the Skin” is a transfixing experience, but it’s tough to say what the film is really about. At times, it seems to comment on and subvert gender roles and horror movie themes; in horror movies, girls who have sex generally die, while the virgins live, but in “Under the Skin” it’s sexually available and promiscuous men who are murdered. Perhaps it’s notable that the deformed man, who has never had a girlfriend, manages to survive his encounter with Laura. And the film’s ending SPOILER ALERT!, which depicts the logger lighting Laura on fire as she peels off her human skin, is unusually provocative, suggesting that death might liberate Laura from her bizarre ritualistic existence.
Glazer’s last film was 2004’s “Birth,” an odd, compelling film that was neglected during its theatrical release and is now regarded by some as a masterpiece. I was disappointed in “Birth,” and I believe that with “Under the Skin” Glazer has made a huge leap as a filmmaker, visually as well as narratively. My main complaint is that the movie’s ideas don’t quite match its visual riches; after the film ended, I spent a fair amount of time trying to reconstruct what happened in “Under the Skin,” but not nearly as much time pondering weighty philosophical questions. This is in stark contrast to the 2013 science-fiction film “Upstream Color,” which is, like “Under the Skin,” challenging and visually astonishing, but also chock full of ideas.
No matter. “Under the Skin” is unique and unforgettable, and suggests that Glazer is a major talent. I don’t know what he’ll do next, but I hope we don’t have to wait 10 years to see it.
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