Upon hearing the premise for “Under The Skin” – an alien assumes the guise of a sexy human female in order to lure unsuspecting men to their deaths – one would be forgiven for instinctively dismissing it as a probable exploitation of Scarlett Johansson’s body and sex-appeal for the purpose of perpetuating an irrational fear of female sexuality. How interesting and refreshing it is, then, that it should turn out to be about the discovery of otherness rather than a manipulation of the fear of otherness; and that the other, in this case, is us.
The film opens with abstract images of black and white circular shapes and lights, vaguely evocative of UFO lights but presented without any context or clues that would confirm that hypothesis or any other, leaving the viewer to either speculate or simply experience the images for themselves. In that respect, it recalls the early experimental films of the Dada movement such as Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” or Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy’s “Ballet Mécanique”. More importantly, it serves a double purpose: Prepare the viewer’s mind for the oblique loosely-narrative nature of the film, and sneakily start the process through which they will subconsciously begin to identify with the protagonist’s confrontation with the strange and the new.
Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien protagonist (none of the characters in the film are named, not even in the end credits) is part of a crew that has assumed the guise of humans – in her case, that of a dead prostitute – for a mission whose purpose is unclear but involves Johansson driving a truck and picking up random men under the pretense of asking for directions, seducing them and inviting them into an empty house from which they never come out. With each new victim comes a little more information on what happens to them.
Jonathan Glazer’s direction shifts from dark onirism to aestheticized naturalism in a manner so seamless that it doesn’t immediately register. In most scenes, Scarlett Johansson’s alien is a silent professional at work, scouring Scottish roads with an emotionless face, her eyes intently scouting for potential prey while also taking in her environment. In those scenes, Glazer films Scarlett Johansson at the wheel of her truck like Alfred Hitchcock filmed Janet Leigh driving her car in “Psycho”, focusing on those eyes with great attention.
Once potential prey is found, she puts on an impeccable English accent and seduces them without making any conscious attempt at doing so. Either unaware or uninterested in human heterosexual mating habits, she simply engages in small-talk with the men, asking them innocuous questions about what they’re doing, where they’re from and where they’re going, and letting her looks do the rest of the job. The men get in, talk a little about themselves and she listens politely, not exhibiting great interest in what they are saying but going along with it. Johansson’s transformation from eagle-eyed predator to charming everywoman and back is, in keeping with Glazer’s direction, so seamless as to be invisible.
It must be noted at this point that all these actors were non-professional local men who, until the film crew revealed itself once their scenes were deemed satisfactory, had no idea they were in a film and that the beautiful woman they were flirting with was Scarlett Johansson. Not only does this give those scenes a natural spontaneity that scripted seduction scenes rarely possess, it furthers the viewer’s process of identification with the alien and reinforces the film’s theme of seeing ourselves through her eyes: This really is us that she and Glazer’s cameras are observing and interacting with; us as we are, without any fakery. Of course, white heterosexual cisgendered working-class Scottish men are hardly perfect representatives of humanity as a whole, but humanity is about more than such categories. We convey a whole lot about ourselves through the smallest, most insignificant of our gestures and words, whether it’s the words and gestures themselves or our delivery of them. And it is partly through these little conversations about nothing that the alien gradually grows more and more curious about this planet and this species she’s been sent to harvest.
The other part of her journey of discovery and self-discovery comes through the observation of everyday life around her, from a man’s failed rescue of his drowning wife and dog to the simple observation of people crossing the street or waiting for the bus. Much like the aforementioned “Psycho” and many of Hitchcock’s films, “Under The Skin” is all about gazing and being gazed at. As the alien uses her male victims’ gaze to lure them to their doom, her own gaze becomes a portal through which we see our world and ourselves: Strange, at times frightening yet consistently beautiful and teeming with life. As her curiosity grows, she begins to experiment more with her body and surroundings. One such experiment consists of tripping in the middle of the street just to feel what it’s like and observe the bystanders’ reactions. In a much later scene, she has a most unexpected reaction to eating a piece of cake. In all those scenes, Johansson’s eyes communicate discreet surprise with just a hint of fear. In a way, one could see her alien as a dark counterpart to her role as Samantha in “Her”, in that they have contrasting reactions to experiencing everything in our world for the first time: Samantha reacts with joy, wonder and excitement; the alien reacts with bemusement, wariness and fear.
This journey of self-discovery reaches a turning point when she picks up a young man suffering from neurofibromatosis who, quite understandably, finds himself intimidated and bewildered at being accosted by a friendly and beautiful woman who seems genuinely curious about his life, doesn’t appear to understand why he has never been with a woman or notice his deformities at all, and even offers to let him touch her hands, face and neck. In a lesser film, such a scene would have likely ended up being a patronizing display of pity. In this film, it is honest, heartfelt and entirely devoid of manipulation. Nothing in the alien’s facial expressions or tone suggests pity. On the contrary, her compliments towards his hands sound sincere and spontaneous. Her accumulation of previous victims and observation of human behaviour give logic to her interest in him and her subsequent actions. For the first time, the alien is truly being herself, going beyond her mission parameters to know and understand her intended victim as a person. What we are seeing is not a beautiful woman taking pity on a physically unattractive man and magnanimously deigning to let him have sensual or sexual contact with him; it is a person, unaffected by learned human prejudices, starting to overcome her own and recognizing humans as equal beings whose lives have value.
The scene’s poignancy owes much to the unaffected chemistry between Johansson and Adam Pearson. Pearson, a non-professional actor and member of the charitable organization Changing Faces, was the only “victim” to be fully aware that he was shooting a film, but you wouldn’t know it from the raw honesty of his performance. He bares his soul – and his body – with a fearlessness that few more experienced professional actors possess. Every slight gesture, every eye movement, every turn of the head, every silence appear reflexive and unplanned. In turn, Johansson’s low-key inquisitiveness and compassion appear as unprompted as Pearson’s. It’s a fascinating duet between an untrained amateur relying purely on his soul and a glamorous Hollywood star striking a subtle balance between in-character calculations and understated authentic feeling.
“Under The Skin” feels as alien as its protagonist. Aside from the seduction scenes, there is almost no dialogue. It is a film built on mood and feeling, through perfectly-composed shots, a haunting score by Mica Levi and Scarlett Johansson’s eyes and body language. In some of its best scenes, it is strongly reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s best work – particularly “Walkabout”, without a doubt one of the greatest explorations of otherness ever committed to screen. Glazer’s film does not quite reach its level of profundity, partly due to a disappointing Red Riding Hood-horror resolution that resorts to a facile predator-turned-prey twist and suggests Glazer and his co-screenwriter Walter Campbell had run out of ideas by that point. But the bold and beautiful look it gives us at ourselves, as well as the hypnotic experience it provides us in doing so, makes it a valuable work of art.