Jonathan Glazer started off in advertisements and music videos and graduated into film with 2000’s Sexy Beast, an original but rather vacuous gangster film, which defied certain genre conventions in favour of directorial pyrotechnics and outlandish dream sequences. His new film, Under The Skin, seems to be trying to defy expectations with its mix of science fiction and kitchen sink drama tropes but remains equally shallow.
The film begins with what appears to be the movements of abstract circles of light, being reminiscent of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the light inside a film projector. The soundtrack is eerie and formless, but we can just about make out a few repeated words. Finally, we realize that we are watching the creation of an eye and that this sequence represents an alien transforming into a human. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien wearing human skin. She drives around Glasgow in a big white van picking up men and inviting them back to her house where they are submerged in a strange black liquid and seemingly consumed. However, when the alien suddenly takes pity on one potential victim (Adam Pearson), it leads to her downfall.
Beginning with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Under The Skin becomes 10, Abbas Kiarostami’s film set entirely inside a taxi as a female taxi driver brings fairs from one place to another in an artistic conversation piece intended as a comment on contemporary Iran. In a much written about gimmick, Glazer had Johansson driving around Glasgow, approaching people who did not know that they were being filmed and invite them to get into her van. The film features scenes with these people, though there are a few actors who allow themselves to get picked up, including Paul Brannigan from The Angels’ Share. The apparent reason for this mixing of fact and fiction is supposedly that Johansson’s pretending to be an English woman picking up men will mirror the alien’s pretending to be an English woman picking up men. Or it could simply be read as an attempt on the part of Glazer to make the audience forget that Under The Skin stars Scarlett Johansson. Or it could merely be a gimmick to add a bit more interest to what are increasingly repetitive scenes. Although this creates an interesting mixture of what is essentially actuality footage with the more Kubrickian-Lynchian science fiction sequences, it is in many ways an artistic failure, since we never forget that it is Johansson onscreen, the scenes still become fairly tedious and it ultimately adds little to the film.
If the film is trying to show how different types of men react to an openly flirtatious woman, it would need to show more varied examples and to place more emphasis on this idea. Related to this, the carnivorous alien storyline could only really be construed as either unnecessary or rather misogynistic. The film’s ending takes on a deeply misogynistic reading as the “woman” having used her sexual powers over the men is punished by a man, who casually rapes and murders her. Under The Skin is left open for the audience but if it is supposed to be about more than one thing (what it is to be human is another, as are questions of vision and disguise) it should support such a multiplicity of meaning without suggesting a rather dodgy rape thriller.
The alien stops hunting men when it encounters a man suffering from the effects of neurofibromatosis. This leads to a deeply uncomfortable scene, not because we worry about what the alien is going to do, but because we wonder why Glazer is using such exploitative means to achieve some kind of outdated Beauty understanding the Beast scene. The scene is played for pity, not understanding and it is another instance of Glazer being provocative for effect rather than for meaning.
Once the alien gets out of her van, the film seems to be taking on a whole other meaning, becoming a story about an outsider trying to fit in but being totally overwhelmed by their harsh and incomprehensible environment. This is perhaps the film’s only consistent thread and it’s most successful. The film does manage to present the mundane real world from a different perspective, making the everyday look somehow otherworldly and often threatening. The film ends tragically, and yet the film is too cold and clinical and, by this point, too long for us to care too much. Glazer attempts to make it interesting by including one last provocation, the rape scene, which only makes the entire enterprise seem like a deeply misogynistic story about a strong and threatening woman bested by men’s natural power over women. Either that or a hip director saying nothing at all.
It is apparent that more thought went into the visuals and the production gimmicks than went into figuring out what the film is ultimately about. As with Sexy Beast, it is an exercise in genre pastiche, which becomes more tiresome and more vacuous as it proceeds. It ends up being nicely shot but thematically misguided and deeply dull. To describe it as experimental is misleading, because most experiments have a purpose.