Directed: Jonathan Glazer
Produced: BFI & Film4
Distributed: StudioCanal & A24
Released: April 4, 2014
I really don’t get Scarlett Johansson. More specifically, it makes sense that she became a famous actress, but I have a hard time understanding her superstar draw. If a movie gets Scarlett Johansson on their poster, then that movie matters, yet it baffles me how a woman with such narrow emotional range and apparent disinterest in her blockbuster roles can leave a lasting impression on the public. She reminds me a lot of Viggo Mortenson: an attractive, minimally expressive performer who just happened to be in a handful of good movies. Under the Skin didn’t refute my appraisal, instead using Johansson’s inexplicable appeal to its benefit.
SPOILER WARNING: I REVEAL IMPORTANT NARRATIVE DETAILS, AND I DISCUSS THE FILM’S MOTIFS AND THEMES IN DEPTH. LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK
Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin took advantage of its lead woman’s stiff affect and awkward line delivery by casting her as a seductive, predatory alien. She’s come down to Earth to lure lonely men into a mysterious black pool. The ensnared men then dissolve in the liquid, leaving behind their hollowed-out skin while the half-digested insides are shipped to Johansson’s home planet. However, she starts to develop emotional attachments to the humans, angering the other aliens on Earth with her. Watching this made-up, fur-coated seductress use her sexuality to trap men in a food processor is a red flag for the film’s portrayal of women, but that part comes later.
For now, I want to emphasize that Under the Skin feels like the perfect movie for handling its more unwieldy parts. Cinema’s weird preoccupation with beautiful women and Scarlett Johansson’s limited acting ability come together to sell me on an interesting premise for a thriller. This feels like an ideal situation. The film industry will likely never be rid of lackluster performers or misogynistic subtext, so Under the Skin makes the most of that reality by buoying it with unique ambitions. Unfortunately, even the best ideas require strong writing and smart presentation to execute, and Under the Skin couldn’t manage either of those.
This movie just did not grab me in the way it grabbed so many YouTube and news journal critics. I’d find videos of guys poring over the symbolic meaning of every scene, praising the mysterious ways in which this enigmatic film communicated its ideas, but hearing them explain the significance of the ant on Johansson’s finger never translated into favorable recollection. And it’s not like I was unwilling to engage with the imagery on a deeper level. I’m not the kind of guy who turns his nose to a bit of suffocating pretension. Hell, The Handmaiden is one of my favorite movies ever.
For example, I can appreciate the effort that went into creating a predator vs. prey dynamic. ScarJo’s cold, detached presentation makes her the ideal performer in a movie about killing without compassion. The ever-present insect imagery highlights the contempt she demonstrates for humanity – a struggling subspecies that writhes in her presence – while also lending context to her methods. Spiders hunt insects by trapping them in elaborate webs, dissolving their insides with venom, sucking out the digested viscera, and leaving behind an empty shell. That’s a chilling motif.
But that’s all it is: a motif. It’s a briefly evocative symbol that begs for analysis without consideration for its impact on the film’s message. Speaking without words is good enough, but the speaker should still feel compelled to say something meaningful. That’s the difference between motifs and themes. All the critics in the world can spend their entire lives teasing out the one-to-one allegorical significance of any random prop, but a movie is usually much better when it can tie its figurative language around a worthwhile argument. The argument Under the Skin wants to make is filled with stunningly myopic contempt and a baffling inconsistency to its message.
We can start with how the film used cosmetics and fashion as signifiers of shallowness, framing the hallmarks of mainstream consumer femininity as the domain of deceptive predators. This paltry distaste for “womanly” things is the Swiss army knife in every hack writer’s toolkit. The dangerous alien was drawn to superficial beauty because she didn’t understand the “real” value in humanity. As she grew fonder of the people around her, the make-up washed off her face, a blue-collar jacket replaced her fur coat, and the trappings of feminine beauty were shed to make her more relatable and empathetic.
This sophomoric cliché comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of why women wear make-up. It’s not all about covering their flaws or hiding some mythical “true” beauty. Foundation, blush, eye-liner, eye shadow, mascara, and lipstick all exist to accentuate the features that a woman already has. Contouring is a technique for highlighting the natural bone structure of a woman’s face. Mascara and eye liner make lashes bolder, while blush and lipstick mimic the rush of blood women experience when they’re excited. Make-up isn’t a lie; it’s a louder expression of the truth, which is why guys tend to mistake “the natural look” for “no make-up at all”
So the creator of Under the Skin turned make-up into a symbol of superficiality based on his own shallow view of the product. Fine. Maybe his open contempt for things associated with women will contrast with a more empathetic portrayal of men, right? Ha, no. Every man who gets caught in ScarJo’s black acid pool is a lonely little creep. Their desire for sexual gratification is so powerful that they allow themselves to be won over by the superficial beauty of a ruthless killer. That’s not even my opinion, Under the Skin just frames them that way; a conga-line of men won over by ScarJo’s frigid delivery, ensnared by how good she looks.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy an opportunity to board the ScarJo BangBus, but a movie so insistent on lauding the deeper beauty in humanity can’t seem to identify the systemic forces that drive men to loneliness and sexual pursuits. Men want intimacy and closeness with women, but mainstream consumer masculinity (a blind spot for hacks) limits their ability to seek that affection out unless it comes attached to a guarantee of sex. Showing how easily these dudes fall prey to their impulses discounts the forces that made them that way and ultimately argues against appreciating them on a deeper level. Why else would they have been so easy to hollow out?
Worst yet, the only man who saw through her veneer was the man trying to sexually assault her. Up to that point, she’d been flirting with the idea of staying human, eating their cake, taking their public transportation, and making love to their kinder men. If skin is supposed to represent superficiality, and her alien body is supposed to represent the inner beauty that humans hate, then why was the violent rapist the only person to break the skin and see the real her? This is my problem with telling a story entirely through motifs. By making all the ostensibly good men fail, the film ends up accidentally saying that the only way to know someone is to traumatize them.
That attack even had the effect of annihilating both ScarJo’s character development and the closest thing this movie has to a theme. Over an hour and 40 minutes, the audience watched this alien come to value human life and even make intimate connections. It’s a pretty consistent development from cold calculation to uncertain attempts at forming relationships. Only doing so has resulted in fear, vulnerability, and the loss of her life. Despite rallying in favor of the upright apes, the film does a 180 at the last minute and tells us that humans were the real monsters all along. Breaking through their skin only exposes disgust, mistrust, and reflexive violence.
This highlights my issues with much of the symbolic analysis of Under the Skin. You can’t graft nuance onto people when you deliberately turn their personality and actions into simple symbols. You can’t toss around the figurative meaning of skin without acknowledging the implications of its interaction with sexual violence. You can’t paint men and women in such broad strokes, and then ask us to presume that the depth is already there. I could have written a lengthy puff piece examining the meaning of every insect, article of clothing, forlorn stare, or abstract color splash, and it wouldn’t have kept Under the Skin from being an ostentatious collection of crossed wires and masturbatory contempt.
It’s not like I don’t understand where Jonathan Glazer comes from with his directorial technique. Before making a career in film, he used to direct music videos for bands like Blur, Massive Attack, and Radiohead. Music videos can rely on motif-based storytelling because the majority of the emotional foundation and thematic legwork is provided by the song. The visuals are free to exist solely as imagery because the writing is already done. Movies don’t have that advantage; their concepts need to be constructed from the ground up, and the writing needs to fill in the cracks between the symbolism. A handful of motifs doesn’t create a narrative by virtue of their close proximity.
The writing for Under the Skin is basically a lost cause, so thankfully, the production values can salvage much of the artistic intent. The coldness of ScarJo’s personality is complemented by the washed-out color palette of the film. Surreal and abstract imagery elicit the necessary emotional sensations in a way that ScarJo’s lukewarm performance doesn’t. The visuals and cinematography create a powerful sense of alienation (haha punny). The shots are literally at a distance to replicate what it’s like to be a stranger in a world of unfamiliar animals. Like the protagonist, we strain to see the little emotions and idiosyncrasies that we expect from interactions with people.
In one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, a man and woman drown in the ocean while ScarJo watches from a distance. A nearby diver only has the energy to save one of them before collapsing on the shore. Pulling the camera back lets us share in her apathy, while also leaving us with the uncanny suspicion that we should be feeling more anguish than the film is currently allowing. We don’t see what it’s like for the woman to realize she’s swam out too far, and we miss the look on the man’s face when he admits that he can’t save his wife, but we know that the emotions should be there, and we’re terrified because Johansson’s character doesn’t.
Less interesting is the improvisational style of the van scenes, when Johansson tried to seduce her victims. Apparently, Under the Skin’s gimmick was its use of unscripted interactions with random people on the streets of Scotland. Johansson would drive up to random men and ask them to come in her van while their natural reactions were filmed. I mean, I made the joke about the pornographic series, BangBus, before I realized how many scenes were improvised an improvised sequence of ScarJo pick-up lines, so learning about the veracity of my observation just means I can’t take this seriously anymore. Sorry, but no matter what the intention was, those scenes will always remind me of goofy porn.
While much of the cinematography was impressive, the sound design is what almost fooled me into thinking this movie was genius, or even just good. Silence is used to chilling effect, especially when juxtaposed with the disorganized noise of human crowds. The language should be familiar, but making out meaningful conversation was impossible. Reducing recognizable human speech to maelstrom of insect chatter helped put distance between the audience and anyone they could have related to. It’s an uncanny experience that reluctantly causes us to identify with the murderous alien, if only because she isn’t accompanied by impregnable linguistic sputtering.
Instead, ScarJo gets a haunting musical refrain, skillfully created by musician Micachu, which signals the start of her hunt. It’s a terrifyingly minimalist strings track that lends fear and mystery to the alien temptress’s methods for luring and capturing her prey. Under the Skin honestly owes the entirety of its appeal to the technical acumen and supplementary artistic talents. I feel so bad for the talented musicians, cameramen, and editors whose exceptional work was used to prop up such vacuous writing. Hopefully, the high profile Johansson brought to this movie gave them a chance to work on something better.
Overall, Under the Skin failed to fulfill the promise of its own title. Peeling back the “skin” revealed only hollow presumptions about humanity, contemptuously served to audiences by way of a reductive and ill-informed worldview (by the way, “skin” was a metaphor for video and sound design, please tell me how smart I am!). The film’s merits will live and die on your appreciation for its well-constructed atmosphere and attention-grabbing concept. Turn your mind off, and enjoy the sensory experience. Any attempt to yield a nuanced message will fall flat, and that effort is better spent on better films.
★★☆☆☆ – Weak