Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.
Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.
It’s an appropriate overture for a film that gives us an alien’s-eye view of lonely men in contemporary Scotland, wandering haplessly through the peripheral vision of a being who means to charm and seduce them and harvest their entrails. The being walks the earth in the guise of a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) with a slack kind of come-hither charm that effectively masks her intentions. But earth men are easy. Each man willingly, credulously, pathetically follows the alien into an endlessly dark room, obediently undressing as it drops its own articles of human clothing, depositing them on the glossy floor like tiny morsels leading a hungry and foolish animal into a trap. And then the men sink uncomprehendingly under the surface.
Why, then, does Under the Skin remind me of Persona as much as anything? Well, there is the scene early on where Johansson stands in a blazingly white space, regarding a woman’s corpse, that recalls a similar scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film that has a gawky young boy waking up in a morgue, placing his hands on a movie screen as faces struggle to resolve themselves in the light. (Even Mica Levi’s atonal music is reminiscent of Lars Johan Werle’s modernist score for Persona.) Just as Bergman draws attention to the artifice of performance — on stage, on the movie screen, or just in the presence of other people — Glazer highlights the performative aspects of Johansson’s femme fatale, an extraterrestrial character disguised in human costume throughout. Both films have scenes of immolation. And both films begin simply and deliberately by conjuring light out of darkness and through concrete imagery (Persona’s film projector, Under the Skin’s enigmatic eyeball) urging us to watch — to really see — what transpires on screen.
I could go on. The film’s sense of dread, however, is a little more Kubrick than Bergman. Persona is mysterious and daydreamy, almost romantic in spots. But Under the Skin is simply appalling. This is a movie that Kubrick could have been proud of; the presentation of its most terrible moments reminds me of the majestic horror of The Shining, blood gushing in rivers. It has the same hallucinatory edge.
From the opening images, Glazer’s visual agenda is rigorous. For much of its running time, this is a film of circular geometry — not just that opening set of optics and the eyes they suggest, but also the mirrors into which Johansson peers to apply make-up, the steering wheel and circular dashboard panels of the vehicle she drives, seen over her shoulder, and even the sets of lens flares that stretch across her face as streetlight globes pass by outside her car window. Close-ups of Johansson’s face — she’s almost always framed right in the center of the frame — have a soft quality, abetted by the perfect noiselessness of the all-digital image. Blacks are totally crushed — the negative space on screen reveals no shadow detail — and in many shots, Johansson is literally the only thing on screen. The void surrounds all.
The film’s first brush with nature is a harrowing sequence set on a beach as night closes in, a squalling baby protesting weakly among the rocks, but shots in the latter half of landscapes crossed by roads, of blowing wind and falling water, all the elements of nature, have a serenity that recalls Tarkovsky.
This is as avant garde in execution as any narrative film I can think of, but narrative does eventually take hold. It happens during an extraordinary sequence in which Johansson’s character picks up a man wearing a hooded jacket that hides his facial tumors, offering to drive him on his midnight run to Tesco. Once they’re in the car, she starts to work on him — complimenting his hands, asking when he last felt the touch of a woman, and finally inviting the guy to touch her face, her neck.
It’s a magnificent scene because, right, of her humanity. Because of the idea that this weirdly impassive character would suddenly begin to interact meaningfully with a man who, finally, invites her sympathy. (Is this the only Scot in all of Glasgow who’s neither married nor on the make?) Of all the men she picks up, this is the only one who’s not a sucker. In fact, his trepidation over his apparent good fortune is the source of the film’s best joke, a one-liner he delivers after the car finally pulls over. The question hangs in the air: Is she really starting to warm to these sad creatures? Or, more chillingly, has she become just that good at burrowing into the soft spots?
Well, it turns out that her interactions have made her curious about being human, and after a scene where she drives into a fog so thick that the road in front of her is no longer visible, she begins experimenting with the little things that make people people — eating cake, riding the bus (!) and having actual sex. At the same time, the omniverous inky blackness recedes, replaced by winding roads and greenery. The film doesn’t become conventional, exactly, but it becomes easier to read in a conventional sense—which is maybe to its detriment, but I’d like to see the whole thing again before making that judgment. Anyway, as the main character learns more about what it means to be human, she becomes more vulnerable. She ditches the fur coat (another skin), revealing the more friendly pink sweater underneath, and the effect is transformative, like the picture switching to color when Bruno Ganz falls to earth in Wings of Desire. There’s a remarkable scene in which Johansson suddenly takes an interest in her body — the skin she’s in — in the warm red glow of a space heater (barely) illuminating a tiny bedroom. Red is the color of blood, and then of sex. But red is also the color of fire, and this woman, a new innocent among humans, will learn a lesson the hard way; people suck after all.
I’ve been a fan of Glazer’s past work, which includes only two feature films — the relatively conventional Sexy Beast and the more daring Birth — but the real masterpiece of his catalog to date is the music video for “Rabbit in Your Headlights” by U.N.K.L.E., in which a furious, babbling Denis Levant endures a shit-ton of abuse from the modern world until he determines that he can take no more. Glazer’s oeuvre doesn’t have many threads to follow beyond the general precision of his images and the uniform impressiveness of the performances, with Ray Winstone and Nicole Kidman doing arguably career-best work in his films. And so it is with Johansson, an impressive actress already who gives a blank, unnerving, nearly wordless performance that renders the sexpot of Match Point and the flirty OS of Her unrecognizable. This film is neither coy nor salacious about its content, and Johansson’s seriousness is right on target.
Encompassing among its subjects sex, death, isolation, loneliness and exploitation, Under the Skin is first a fevered nightmare, then a haunting rumination on the compassions and cruelties of life on planet earth.