Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)

Under the Skin
“Enigmatic” might be too light a word for this film; “Wilfully cryptic” might be better. “Oddball”, too (though this is not necessarily a bad thing).

The film opens with light effects reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a woozy, shifting kaleidoscope that intimates something weird without actually spelling out anything specific (unless I’ve missed some glaringly obvious symbolism), and we then see a mysterious motor cyclist recovering a dead woman from the roadside on a scottish moor. He delivers her to Scarlett Johansson, naked in a featureless white room space. Johansson takes the clothes from the dead woman and she and the biker part company, Johansson taking possession of a transit van and driving round Glasgow, accosting strangers to ask directions, in fact trying to ascertain who she can seduce and entice into her van and back to a base where her victims will meet a rather unpleasant, though still unexplained, end.

There isn’t a great deal of plot; this is basically an alien coming to earth and, in human guise, experiencing a little of what it means to be human (the people she encounters being mostly good, some not so) and perhaps becoming a little more human in the process. It relies a great deal on tone and atmosphere, in this (although not much else) being a little similar to Johansson’s breakout film, Lost in Translation, and I struggled, at first, to fully engage with the film. One of the much-discussed features of the film is that some of Johansson’s encounters were surreptitiously filmed meetings with real people, and others staged, and I found this distracting, wondering who was ‘real’ and who not, though this became less of an issue later on, when the story elements came more to the fore and the random encounters less frequent. Also, there were some transitions from comedy to horror that were distinctly odd – at first, I wasn’t sure if the comedy was intended though I now think they were. In at least one instance, the comedy nicely set up an unexpectedly gruesome bit of nastiness.

Johansson is nude or semi-nude for significant sections of this film, which I’m sure will attract publicity, one way or the other; it doesn’t appear to be simple titillation but, rather, is an important part of establishing the identity of the alien. Kudos, too, for Johansson for taking this role, in a small, weird and oddly interesting film that would barely get a screening but for her involvement in it.

I’ve not read the book on which this is based, and I’m not sure whether it would help explain things, or if I want all the meanings neatly wrapped up. It’s a film that, while not entirely successful, is extremely interesting and it’s one I’d probably watch again.

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