Scarlett Johansson creeps in 'Under the Skin'
Johansson plays a woman who seems to be some kind of alien (the starkly beautiful and abstract opening scenes scan as a birth sequence) who drives around Scotland in a van picking up and then hitting on male hitchhikers. To film these scenes, Glazer had Johansson (wearing a dark-haired wig and speaking in an English accent) actually drive around Scotland in a van picking up and then hitting on male hitchhikers. That explains why she’s driving a van: Glazer and a bunch of security guards were in the back making sure nothing too dramatic took place.
While these initial interactions (and the men's occasionally impenetrable accents) are real it’s safe to assume the later scenes with each hitchhiker, in which they’re taken back to her place to meet a bizarre but visually stunning fate, are fiction. The way each one unfolds, with her first trying to lure them into her van then trying to find out if they’d be missed, becomes a series of dramas in miniature. The way Johansson switches off her humanity between hunts, is the glue that connects these early scenes: an extended sequence where she ends up on a beach dragging an unconscious man away while a clearly doomed baby cries alone and ignored, underlines that for her humanity is just meat.
As the story progresses she becomes more interested in the creatures she’s harvesting, which means she also becomes more interested in who she’s pretending to be. A pivotal scene at the film’s mid-point sees her gaze shifting from men in the street (who are her targets) to the women who are, in one sense or another, her equivalent on this planet. Eventually she consciously tries to break free of the role she’s been forced into, and her gradual attempts to become more human (and less appalled by her human body) come to dominate the film, even as the sinister motorbike riders that she’s somehow linked to go from being her protectors to her hunters.
It’s not the most original plot in science fiction; just about every vaguely human-shaped alien that encounters humanity ends up wanting to become more human. But Glazer’s commitment to telling his story in purely visual terms – Johansson never has a real conversation about what’s going on, and many of the elements of her job are both beautiful to look at and utterly bizarre – gives this film a haunting dream-like power too rarely seen in cinema.
Glazer (director of Sexy Beast and Birth) has always been interested in examining the human body on film – think of all the shots of shirtless and sweating middle-aged men in Beast – but here his interest is firmly in the foreground. Usually in film, women — especially a movie star like Scarlett Johansson — are presented as sexy and attractive, whether the story requires it or not. That’s part of what makes you a movie star: people like to look at you.
Here that’s reversed: Johansson is shown as sexy in the story we’re watching – the men she picks up look at her with barely concealed lust – but both the film and Johansson herself work hard to present her (or her body at least) to the audience as something unsettling and remote. She seems human to the leering men around her, but she’s an alien to herself, and Johansson gives a brilliant performance as a creature always slightly horrified to be who she is.
The lack of explanation for much of what we’re seeing – it’s loosely based on a novel by Michael Faber, but Glazer’s basically taken the novel’s first few chapters and created his own story based on them – can be frustrating. But being forced to engage with the material just to try and make sense of what we’re seeing is part of what makes this so compelling.
On a narrative level it's surreal and unexplained, but the emotional context is clear: a woman trapped in a role since birth commits to a journey of self-awareness without knowing where it will take her. It’s a film with a lot to say even if the language it’s using isn’t always clear.