Apparently ten years in the making, Glazer’s third film is by some margin his best. Sexy Beast is memorable for Ben Kingsley dominating every scene he’s in (even with Ray Winstone alongside) and turning the film into a distracting acting master class; Birth is memorable for being half superb, half failing to live up to the first half. Under the Skin (2014) is memorable for many reasons, particularly Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress and a number of scenes that your mind won’t shift for a long time.
It opens with a Chris Cunningham-esque, precision-tooled, lab-pristine abstraction that gradually assembles into focus as the formation of a synthetic eye: tones of wet glass, hard rubber, sleek metal, slow, exacting efficiency as a voice (Johansson’s) intones a series of carefully articulated phonetic sounds. As the eye completes, the film begins.
Significant, as the film is, on one level, entirely about vision, what it does, how it controls and lulls and, in the case of Johansson’s numerous victims, how easily it lures men to their doom. It’s easy to put yourself right in the passenger seat of her white van (well, as a man it is, and quite possibly as a woman also I’m sure) and cringe in recognition as the doomed quarry size up their improbable and instant accord with this “lost” woman who just happens to look like, well, a gothed-up version of Black Widow. She speaks in an austerely coquettish English accent and sounds rather like Jenny Agutter, which helps. She is notably not the odd, almost-convincing buxom bespectacled pig-alien of Michel Faber’s novel (which is very different in more ways than I will enumerate here; the tone of the novel is retained but plenty has been dispensed with) and Glazer’s highly effective trick during the “pick up” scenes is to use real unbeknownst Scot blokes, which, as well as obviously adding an unmistakable element of verisimilitude, leaves you that bit more disoriented: how are they going to play this? One lingers over the fact that he lives “alone. Ah, it’s great! I can dee what I want!” Squirm as his vaunted freedom is swiftly truncated.
Beyond her initial construction and configuration, we first see Johansson’s fully-formed alien stripping and donning the clothes of (what I took to be) an earlier iteration of an alien femme fatale man-procurer, in a brightly sterile white room, after it/she has been picked up on the roadside by Johansson’s alien accomplice, a leather-clad biker. She too is/was a flawlessly beguiling black-haired replica. Once the ensemble-swap is complete, and the expired alien lays naked and of no apparent further use, Johansson collects a small insect (a motif to be repeated once more, at a moment when Johansson seems to have crossed a final line between alien distance and evolving humanity) from between the replaced eros-emissary’s thighs and observes it. She then quickly establishes rudimentary acclimatization to female human ways: a trip to a shopping center, wandering amid a pointed montage of female beautification and buying a hard-to-ignore hot pink sweater with a suitably plunging neckline.
Thereafter we’re looking, along with Johansson, for targets as she prowls through cold, nothing Scottish streets seemingly lit with a low winter sun, perusing passersby for suitability, measuring the moving, fixating and rejecting, her unsubtle interrogations (“Do you live nearby? Do you live alone?”) tempered by her guise. She picks out men alone and, if their questions are answered sufficiently, picks them up. There are no men ready to turn her down: we begin to silently encourage them to look away, helpless as they are. She’s hardly ultra-professional in her method or delivery, but she doesn’t have to be.
Once led to her lair, to all appearances a derelict and abandoned block of flats on the outskirts of town, the men expecting a seriously welcome and shockingly simple conquest find themselves in a bizarre chamber of glossy black floors and little else, but regardless play the game and trade shed garment for ostentatiously inappropriate (not that they can see themselves as such, even as they walk through the consuming fluid that once was the floor upon which they strutted) amorous gesture, until they have walked right into a submerged stasis (and we will later see just exactly what happens to these pickled priapics: and it’s not very nice — Nic Roeg’s hand rests heavily over these sequences, and much of the film) and eventual death. They will be ‘processed’: vanquished for their constituent elements (which roll away horribly on a weird abbatoir-conveyor) and, possibly, re-emerging and recycled as an insect.
These sequences, which form the culmination of the alien objective, are as stylish as they are repellent. They’re a pretty good representation of a certain kind of night out: grimy reality, subdued in nightclubs and under intoxication, is here encapsulated by the bizarrely contrasted inner-outer state of Johansson’s processing hub. It looks demolition-ready to those passing by or visiting for the first (and last) time. Inside, it’s a minimalist opulent chamber of harsh sophistication, and far from homely. The film touches sardonically on the horridly contrived nature of sexual convention: the rituals, the necessary relinquishing of defenses, the games, the signals. Men will walk to their doom for sex, shut out all logic, keep their eyes on their objective even when that objective, finally, is out of reach, walking back over their heads, a marbled vision suiting up again for another trip out.
The turning point, for Johansson’s alien, arrives during a horribly upsetting sequence: a swimmer, launching himself back into the waves to help an imperiled couple, ends up back on the sand, unsuccessful and exhausted, and is clonked on the head by our opportunist alien before being dragged away. The couple’s stranded toddler wails at the horrific scene unfolding, and is still there later on, convulsing and ignored in the near-dark, as Johansson’s biker accomplice tidies up and, presumably, the tide does it’s own tidying.
From this Johansson’s implacability has been terminally pierced: her expression henceforth is that of someone troubled in some nameless way that we, of course, read as a malaise of acclimatization, of the human tragedy. Something off about what she has done has planted a seed of uncertainty, from which a burgeoning sense of humanity will grow. As with Roeg’s ill-equipped travelling alien, Earth is no place for Johansson, and whereas David Bowie sinks into an alcoholic despair, Johansson fatally tries to cling onto her fabricated identity and masquerade as human.
What follows is a rapid deterioration in her mindless, murderous equilibrium, and her response to her acts slowly evolves until it meets ours: appalled curiosity. She follows a potential victim towards a nightclub and retreats, only to be waylaid by a lairy group of drunken girls who sweep her back whence she came. She becomes disoriented by the blare and frantic catharsis surrounding her, the manic release and crude, guileless courtship rituals on display and flees, only to stumble upon her original target, who is soon another soon-to-be-processed captive.
(And it’s as we slip into the malleable marinade with this latest unfortunate that we see another hosted doomed male. Our latest contestant reaches for his pool mate and they lightly clasp each other’s hands, blinking, soporific and quietly confused, before they are wrenched apart and the longest-dwelling captive is, for want of another term, detonated into a strange iteration, all bones and blood extracted and collected, a vaguely amphibious swaying splay of flesh, and then onto another rapidly evolved stage somewhat similar to the insect Johansson inspects early in the film.)
The pivotal moment in Johansson’s final evolution from ruthlessly, inevitably efficient collector of helpless men arrives with a slightly different potential victim is selected from the murky early evening streets. He is seriously deformed, his head and facial features sculpted and ballooned a la John Merrick, and the painfully oblivious (on Johansson’s part) seduction he undergoes is doubly uncomfortable. She is not outwardly compassionate – as she wasn’t when witnessing a sobbing child and undergoing a visible jolt thereafter – to the man but something critical and irrevocable has been wrought by his coming across her path.
The fateful decision to deliver this neurofibromatosis sufferer – devoid as it is of any ‘quality control’ elements beyond correct gender and age, perhaps an act of self-sabotage – initiates Johansson’s final metamorphosis into desirously human and ruinously altered. She has been derailed by the experience, and it’s not clear (some reviews suggest she releases her captive – I didn’t read the situation in that way) why the deformed man hasn’t been processed. My take was that his imperfections saved him by making him ineligible, unusably irregular. His escape, which is curtailed by our leather-clad biker cohort after his dazed tramp across early-daylit fields, has hastened Johansson’s crisis of conformity to her cause. She stares into a mirror and becomes both fascinated and horrified by what her appearance may mean, what her visual identity has begun to do to her psychological state, who she is and the ‘purpose’ of her existence. We are led to recollect that early scene involving another alien, dead and replaced, and wonder if this eventual alteration of intent and desire to assimilate is a natural flaw in the process. There is a scene mid-film whereby the primary male alien carries out a militaristic inspection of Johansson, presumably for this reason, peering intently as though for signs of mental fissures or signs of erosion. An insect fluttering madly by the door of their retooled abode hints at this yearning for assimilation, the end of her utility to draw men back to the hive seemingly final. She is aware of the magnitude of this failure and abandons her role, and she is soon sought by those using her, who begin their search.
Her now desperate and exposed self, having relinquished her murderous task, begins an attempt at integration without the first idea of any of the nuances and protocols required. She is on her own, but not for long. Getting onto a bus, she is panicked, vulnerable and easy prey. The driver fails to engage her in conversation, but the other passenger, a pointedly ordinary man, approaches and offers solace (for lascivious reasons or out of the goodness of his heart, or perhaps both) and she follows him back to his suitably plain flat, where she’s treated to a bit of Tommy Cooper on the miniscule telly (which she fails to find amusing. Tch!) and some Deacon Blue on the tinny wireless (we are, remember, in Scotland). This is what she’s let herself in for, Glazer is saying. You start to pray for her to reconsider and head off back to base, all apologies for absconding. But she instead tries to approximate human womanhood, further examining her naked human form and playing her new role as accurately as possible.
Fatefully, after sex with her new landlord, the futility of her attempt hits home and she flees once again, this time to that cinematic graveyard otherwise known as ‘the woods’. Here she has a slightly less fortunate double-encounter with a human stranger, who sexual assaults her, stopping only at the point that both he, and she, make a rather interesting discovery as to what lies under her skin during a frantic struggle. As she, the real she, regards her shed skin (still sentient, facial movement still fully functional), the horrified would-be rapist douses her in petrol and sets her alight, the black smoke from her charred corpse drifting into the sallow Scottish sky as her old accomplice looks for her, peering over the landscape from a nearby hilltop.
Under the Skin is clearly at least partly about gender politics, and Glazer has made a very interesting and disturbing film to that end. He spent years trying to figure out how to adapt the novel, and what we have is fairly dissimilar to Brad Pitt as an alien farmer (that being an element of the first mooted version). It’s a film that also manages to be disconcerted with the emptiness of sexual hedonism and appalled at what our priorities, as a race, lead us to: our ideas about what is worth pursuing, both in terms of imagery and possession. What, now, is beauty for, Glazer seems to ask? Its potency is worth billions with both genders seemingly powerless as to its authority. Layers – clothing, skin, veneers of persona – are speaking a language to one end: desire, to be distinct and to be noticed and coveted. Beyond those, the territory is deeply troubling.
Johansson’s alien (and she’s extremely effective in the role: I’d argue the lavish praise she’s received is down to successfully taking on such an unusual protagonist rather than any particular feats of performance) is the underlyingly grubby, deceitful, soul-cancerous exemplar of the murderous, mindless havoc it wreaks. And even as her victims saunter beneath life’s surface for the last time, you understand why, and feel deeply uneasy and impressed that a film is bothering to pose questions about how we’re hardwired, how we’re evolved, and what we might do about it. Underneath, we’re all the same, but our ideas about beauty are tightly wound with our refusal to entertain ideas about mortality and meaning. To what extent are we our appearance and biological impulse? What, and who, are we? Jonathan Glazer has found a stylish, scathing and excruciating means of making a statement about some big issues that’s hard to love but very easy to admire.