Under the Skin is one of the creepiest and most unique films I have seen in a long time. Despite the originality and thoroughly modern trappings, however, the success is down to a mix of some old fashioned tricks and techniques, and a brilliant lead actress.
Scarlett Johansson plays an extra-terrestrial, on earth, specifically Scotland, for reasons left unspecified in the film, whose life revolves around luring men into a van, taking them back to her flat and killing them. However, the longer she stays on Earth and the more men die at her hands, the more she starts to understand human beings - is she starting to turn into one?
Although the bare bones of the plot may make it sound like a rip-off of something like Species (or even Devil Girl from Mars, which also has a female alien hunting Scottish men) the key to the film’s success is in the highly original execution. The style flits between extreme realism and highly stylised (and gore free) murder sequences, where victims slowly disrobe and walk into an inky black lake before realising too late that they are literally and figuratively, out of their depth with this woman.
However enticing the idea of Scarlett Johansson stripping and seducing men may sound on paper, this is not a titillating or even erotic film. The seduction is a means to an (admittedly unclear) end, and her character seems to take no obvious pleasure in what she is doing, seemingly locked into an emotionless, joyless, stoical struggle to survive, a sharp contrast with the men she picks up, who are after sensual, physical pleasure.
The scenes of her interacting with the real world become all the more startling with the realisation that many of the people she mixes with, both in and out of her van, are not actors, with director Jonathan Glazer using hidden cameras to capture the footage of unsuspecting participants, who don't seem to recognise they are being chatted up by a Hollywood star. The blend of real people and actors is so seamless that when a group of feral teens attack her van I honestly could not tell if it was staged or not. Hidden camera TV shows, capturing genuine reactions from the public, have been around for decades, as have guerrilla filmmaking techniques, but to see the two blended together so seamlessly is quite disconcerting and disorientating. Johansson stays totally in character throughout, and seems unfazed by anything thrown at her, including some very thick Glaswegian accents, but as with so many aspects of this film, it is tough to know what is “real” (i.e. spontaneous) or “fake” (rehearsed).
For all the contemporary themes and techniques however, the storytelling is done almost entirely through the images, and editing, techniques and anything we learn about the alien, we learn through watching her actions, with dialogue irrelevant or non-existent.
All this is backed by Mica Levi's eerie discordant score, mixing high pitched strings, ominous rumbling noises and percussion, lush synthesizers, and, during the seduction scenes, a pulsing hypnotic rhythm. This mix of live instruments with treated sounds and electronics is entirely in keeping with the mix of new ideas and old techniques in the film.
There are a few laughs to be had to amongst the death and chills, laughs which mostly come from unexpected details in a scene, such as one victim who, in the middle of his slow motion seduction dance, whips off his trousers to reveal a particularly revolting pair of underpants, or simply the sight of Scarlett Johansson sitting in a council house living room, eating beans on toast, watching Tommy Cooper repeats.
Ultimately, what may derail enjoyment for some, as much as the disturbing subject matter and glacial tone is the stubborn refusal to explain every detail, but what that does mean is that Under the Skin is wide open to personal interpretation. My favourite way of looking at the film is as a symbolic representation of the filming process itself, with Scarlett Johansson, the being from another planet (Planet Hollywood), landing in the real world and having to assimilate to a strange people and a new way of life. This gets an extra layer of interest thanks to one recurring character, a mysterious man on a motorcycle, who sources the alien’s clothes and is always one step behind her, clearing up the mess and aftermath of her activities, in much the same way as minders and PR people smooth things over for Hollywood celebrities.
Under The Skin is not a film for anyone after uplifting, transcendent art, or easy shocks or titillation, but a work this distinctive and provocative deserves a look. With cinemas as full of loud empty spectacle as they have ever been, it is a pleasant surprise to see something that speaks so much by often saying and doing so little.