A Study in Scarlett: The Siren Song of “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”

– Michel Faber, Under the Skin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000).

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Billed as “based upon the novel Under The Skin by Michael [sic] Faber,” perhaps the most remarkable thing about the third feature by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy BeastBirth) is how absolutely unique and unlike the source text the movie evolved to be. According to the press kit, Glazer originally wrote a faithful adaptation, but then experienced a breakthrough while writing Birth (an interesting, if deeply flawed film), and decided to focus almost exclusively on the one aspect of the book that most interested him: identity. What would we look like to an alien species, and what would happen if that alien species began to identify with us as more than just objects for consumption? Filmed with lingering long-duration takes that draw us in to the mind of said alien, the movie also asks what happens to us when we identify with the alien. It is a disturbing, if deeply mesmerizing, experience.

In the book, Isserley – a female of her species, surgically altered to look relatively human – cruises the highlands of Scotland looking for muscular men to capture, bring back to her company’s farm, fatten, and ship off to her home planet. In the movie, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) – never named – cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up any men (muscular or not) in need of a ride, and brings them back to an abandoned building where she strips naked and lures them into a pool of black viscous liquid where they float suspended until their vital essence is sucked out, leaving them as desiccated husks of discarded skin. She is assisted by mysterious men on motorbikes who clean up any messes (and evidence) left behind. Why she is here, where she is from and why she needs us is not important. She is predator; we are prey. The siren calls, and we respond.

Certain passages bring to mind the existential questions at the heart of another great science fiction film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used the genre as an excuse to explore the nature of the human condition, particularly as viewed by its own non-human character, the HAL computer. Like Kubrick, Glazer uses extreme close-ups and abstract compositions and graphics to create occasionally unfamiliar landscapes out of ordinary objects. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the striking opening sequence, where we hear Johansson’s voice struggling to pronounce new words, yet see at first only white, then a bulbous object that slowly resolves into an eye. We don’t see Johansson, herself, until a few scenes later when, naked – and still in that white space – she strips clothes from a female victim, adopting her new human persona.

The choice to keep the Scottish location of the book helps the viewer to feel like an alien him/herself (unless one is Scottish). The impenetrable Glaswegian accents (some more indecipherable than others), in contrast to the crisp English accent adopted by Johansson, keep us more in her head than theirs. And since the men are often sizing her up, who is really predator and who is really prey? They follow the siren willingly, unable to resist the sexual promise of her ample curves.

There is, however, one scene that serves to remind us of this creature’s complete indifference to any empathy for the human race. Standing on a beach, Johansson’s alien watches as a woman swims after a drowning dog, only to start to drown, herself. When the husband attempts to rescue the wife and gets into trouble, too, a nearby swimmer manages to pull him out, at least, but then collapses, exhausted, at the edge of the waves. As the desperate husband swims back out into the surf Johansson approaches the would-be rescuer and beats him senseless with a rock. It is then that we hear a baby crying in the background. It is the now-drowned couple’s child. Later that night, when one of Johansson’s helpers goes back to the beach to remove traces of her presence, the baby is still there, crying, near the water, alone. The man walks away, leaving the child. I think it is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen in a film.

But we need to see that in order for the alien’s later transformation to be meaningful. One of the men Johansson picks up is deeply deformed (played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis), and something in his condition and apparent helplessness seems to touch her. After the encounter, she changes, unable to continue reaping the same harvest as before. Uncomfortable in her role, she becomes literally uncomfortable in her own skin, and wanders the countryside in a daze, until the film ends as she is forced to confront who she is and what she has done. Although I am still struggling to interpret that ending, I found the film beautiful, mysterious and shocking, and – much like the male hitchhiking victims – willingly followed Johansson wherever she led me.

For it is truly Johansson’s movie. Much of it was filmed with non-actors – actual hitchhikers who were unaware of Johansson’s identity (a nice parallel to the actual story) – shot with hidden cameras in the van, on the street, or in a nightclub. Later, if these men agreed, they signed releases and ended up in the finished work. It’s a fascinating technique – and quite brave of Johansson, who was alone in the van with strange men – and brings an authentic feel to the awkwardness of the interaction. Beyond just those scenes, however, Johansson – who has very little dialogue – brings great power and presence to the role, acting with her eyes as only a great screen actor can do.

The score – by first-time film composer Mica Levi – also contributes to the film’s off-kilter atmosphere, alternating between tremolo and pizzicato strings and synthesized chords. Cinematographer Daniel Landin does wonderful job shooting at night in low-light conditions. Ultimately, though, it is Glazer’s vision and Johansson’s performance that makes Under the Skin one of the best films I have seen so far, this year.

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