I recently caught up with last year’s Under the Skin – it was heralded by many critics as one of the best films of the year, revolutionary, changing Scarlett Johansson’s role in cinema and science fiction. It’s the story of an alien in human guise (Scarlett Johansson), who drives around Glasgow in a white transit van, preying on young men by enticing them with the suggestion of sex before disposing of them, in a mystery house with magical qualities. Nothing is explained, there’s little dialogue, and what is really going on is never made clear.
Director Jonathan Glazer uses an almost guerrilla style of film making, with the scenes in which Johansson’s character drives around looking for her victims having a documentary like quality. In fact many of the ordinary people shown weren’t aware they were a part of the film until afterwards – perhaps a rather sad comment on lonely young men in Glasgow. It’s a piece of cinema that feels like an experience; storytelling is not what is key here – instead, the unnerving score from Mica Levi and the odd direction from Glazer combine to make something which feels more like an incredibly claustrophobic piece of art. Despite Johansson’s character being an alien it is her world view we share, as, thanks to Glazer’s careful direction, we see the world from an outside perspective, normal conversations and scenes unfolding before both us and this alien, that are unavoidably human.
This is certainly not a film that panders to its audience, and much is left unexplained and ambiguous. Whilst this is admirable and clearly key to the general feel of the film I’m not sure it’s a trait that’s enjoyable to watch. It’s unsettling, and made my skin crawl, surely the point, proving the effectiveness of the film. There are moments so raw that they are almost tender, and the vulnerability glows off the screen until you feel it within yourself as well.
The depiction of women in the film is interesting – arguably Johansson’s character is using the benefit of her beauty to control men, given tools of power in her looks. But still it feels exploitative and she continues to be controlled by men from afar, and is still in the position of a submissive woman in society. I think this is partly the point Glazer is attempting to make, and it is certainly one he does well.
At times it feels like an alien look at the world and yet it also feels like an intimate look at humanity. It’s intense and certainly gets under the skin – of those performing, of those creating and certainly of those watching.