Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is a beautiful trap
Scarlett Johansson stuns, kills, and suggests philosophical questions about what it means to be human
A beautiful woman drives her van aimlessly around a large city. She pretends to be lost and asks a man for directions. She doesn't care about the directions; she is lonely. She simply wants to pick him up, take him to her home, and take off her clothes. This is an average sexual fantasy. There are thousands of short videos with similar premises available online for free, if you care to watch that sort of thing.
The premise of Jonathan Glazer's new film Under the Skin is a variation on this fantasy with two important differences. First, the beautiful woman is not a woman, but an alien wearing a disguise that makes it appear to be a beautiful woman. Second, when the woman takes the man to her home, she takes off her clothes but does not have sex with him. Instead, she walks backward, her body hypnotically beckoning the man into a room of complete and total blackness that will envelop his body and kill him.
Scarlett Johansson plays the alien-woman, a strong casting decision that works conceptually, as well. When designing a serial-murder honeypot scheme, it seems right that an alien would use Johansson's appearance as the lure. Her beauty is as obvious as a scientific fact. It should be recorded in a textbook alongside gravity and natural selection.
Under the Skin has little dialogue. The woman is apparently working in concert with a man who rides a Japanese motorcycle, probably an alien and maybe her superior in this scheme, but they never speak to one another. Any speaking mostly consists of chatty, meaningless conversations of the woman trying to pick up men. In a film that can feel relentlessly serious and brooding, these conversations offer some dark humor. As Johansson methodically repeats her pickup lines — "Where are you from? What are you doing? Who are you with?" — the mechanical obviousness of hooking up becomes a dark joke.
Instead of fixating on dialogue to develop the plot, our attention is directed elsewhere. We are given plenty of time to admire Glazer's camerawork. The woman is sometimes framed in otherworldly scenes of pure white or pure black, rooms that appear to be of pure, glassy, infinite depth. We're shown Johansson's eye in extreme close-up, her pupil and iris luminous like planets in space. We wonder if we should be thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other times, the woman is filmed at odd, surveillance-like angles and grainy textures, up close in her van or from a distance on the street. These shots give the impression that the woman is being monitored, perhaps by the man on the Japanese motorcycle. Glazer offers many more questions than answers.
Early on, the woman tries to pick up a man who stands on a rocky beach after a swim. In the background, a dog is pulled out to sea by the undertow. A woman enters the water to rescue the dog. Her husband follows to rescue her. The man turns to look at the scene, raising a textbook ethics question: Would you try to save a man from drowning if it meant risking your own life? The swimmer doesn't have to think twice, he dives into the water and pulls the husband to safety. (Not that it matters. The husband just runs right back into the water after his wife.) Does the alien woman jump in? Does she watch from a distance? Does she feign concern? No, she just waits until the exhausted swimmer is back on shore and beats him over the head with a rock until he is dead. An alien has no reason to act how we expect humans to act.
Halfway through the film, the woman does something unexpected: She chooses to act with compassion. The decision upends her life, sending her on a journey that beautifully illustrates the pain of being (or trying to be) human.
The second half of Under the Skin brings to mind Johansson's role in Lost in Translation, a film about two lonely people — a washed-up old actor and an aimless young woman — trying to find a human connection. In both films, the lens often lingers on Johansson's body, leaving us to wonder if beauty is a thing that facilitates connection or prevents it. Lost in Translation answered that with an optimistic fantasy. Under the Skin is an interruption of that fantasy, a film about the difficulty of human connection.
Does Under the Skin answer the questions it suggests? Not really. Glazer trusts his film enough to allow it to be mysterious, to allow the viewer a chance to be troubled by the questions that trouble him. More directors should be so brave.