Under the Skin remains one of those movies that engages your mind, even while defying explanation.
As a fan of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel, I gladly ponied up to see Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation back in 2014. And for six years, my impression of the film sat and stewed, despite attempting to work up a review of it several times. After having seen the director’s short , The Fall, I finally found a lens to rewatch the film.
Under the Skin (2014)
A beautiful and mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowls the byways of Scotland, looking for lonely men. As she leads these men to an unspeakable fate, she begins to question her actions.
My first sticking point on working up an opinion on the film is that it’s radically different from the book. The book puts the “alien’s harvesting humans” bit up front and center; the film leaves it opaque – for much of the run time she could just be a very elaborate serial killer. The former also deals much more overtly with body horror, while the latter mostly derives dread from loss of bodily autonomy.
While both feature the often predatory relationship between men and women, each has a much different power dynamic. Scar Jo feels much more in control, even when her seductions go horribly awry. In the book, the protagonist is in constant terror of provoking violence from her marks, not only because she is physically weaker, but because she is obviously alien. Her species doesn’t look remotely human, and the horrific surgery she has gone through to make her appear like a stereotypical bombshell renders her grotesque to her own species, clear-eyed humans, and herself.
But the Movie…
So, getting past the major thematic and character differences took some time. The movie itself also does quite a bit to make a firm decision difficult. Glazer keeps the films perspective nonjudgmental. That’s no small trick as we’re seeing awful things happen to bad people. It keeps you at arm’s length to the film, but also allows you to ease into your appraisal of the characters and events.
If Scar Jo was more obviously alien, it could bias you into regarding her like a monster akin to the femme fatale in Species. If she was more human, you’d probably peg this as a revenge story: a survivor inflicting horror upon men for the horror men inflicted upon her. By staying so aloof, you spend the majority of the film in limbo. Glazer pretty much spells this out, as the men taken by Scarlett are placed in a liquid void – a limbo.
Surreal Life Portrait.
The artistry in Under the Skin’s visuals make the film worth experiencing, even if the opaque story leaves you cold. Glazer just creates beautiful compositions, awash in cool colors, aided by the mesmerizing score by frequent collaborator Mica Levi. Wide shots and static camera angles really make you feel like a clinical observer, until suddenly the camera moves in for extremely intimate angles at crucial moments.
What to Think?
Under the Skin is one of those movies that I still can’t quite pin down. I start to say you should see it just for the technical prowess of the film, but find that much of those aspects really rely on the tone the story imbues them with. Beautiful establishing shots of Scottish countryside just don’t resonate as much without having just seen our lead tenderly seduce a man with a facial disfigurement, all while knowing in the back of your mind that her tenderness is still going to end up with the man floating in a liquid cocoon.
All told, I think Under the Skin works. It has fits and starts, and the final act feels a bit decoupled in tone from the early parts. For all that, it creates a mood and an aesthetic that you’d be hard pressed to find in other films. Paired with the artistry behind the production, it’s a film experience well worth all of the confusion and debate.