Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, pushes the boundaries of cinema in Jonathan Glazer’s unique project.
If you’re planning to watch Under the Skin because you’ve heard it’s a film about sex and that Scarlett Johansson appears naked, then think again. This ambitious masterpiece from Jonathan Glazer is a movie like no other, with no defined characters or even a logical plot. It’s more of a perception — an interpretation each viewer will form based on his or her own experiences.
Under the Skin is what we call an “open artwork,” with several possible inferences. This must have been the reason why Glazer has been compared to the master Stanley Kubrick — besides the visual and sound are inspired by the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Glazer’s Under the Skin is not a silent film, but it could be. The dialogue of the narrative says nothing or, rather, doesn’t drive the story to any logical conclusion. The film takes place on the screen in a grandeur and perverse beauty of images, but also in the minds of viewers. “What is happening?” “Who are these people?” “What does that mean?” These are questions that require the attention of the audience during the screening of the film, and not just after its end, as is often common in cinema.
So, what’s the story? Johansson’s mission is to avenge a woman who appears to have been raped and left by the side of the road. She wears the clothes of the victim and drives a van through the inhospitable landscapes of Scotland, seducing and eliminating men who are interested in female beauty alone.
Johansson’s apathetic character is a woman composed only of skin and beauty. She exists for the sole purpose of punishing men who approach women from this superficial perspective. After being naively attracted to the trap, these men disappear into an oily, black substance that appears to be made of amniotic fluid. Birth and death, womb and tomb, soul and sex — the dialectic discussion is an integral part of the film as much as the special effects disguised as contemporary art.
Having consummated revenge, Johansson leaves behind more and more victims. In one case, a family is torn apart in front of her character without causing any trace of emotion. As the movie goes on, however, we see that some men do not deserve to be punished. One of them, physically deformed, has never even committed the “sin” of being sexually involved with women. His skin, his outer beauty, is “defective,” so he deserves to be saved because his hands are beautiful and noble.
Another man treats Johansson with respect and raises in her a feeling she had never imagined was possible to feel. But her character is still suffering. Even this charming prince, who leads her to the only romantic part in the movie — a visual joke by Glazer, who stages the scene in a castle — cannot make her feel human or complete. She is, and always will be, just a beautiful girl; a stereotype for female sex appeal. Johansson does not exist under the skin.
Incidentally, Johansson deserves special praise for the film. She is not only one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood, but also one of the biggest sex symbols in the film industry. Acting in an experimental project like Glazer’s movie was an exercise of professional maturity, but also a test of her courage and artistic ambition. The actress is clearly a beautiful woman, but in the movie she doesn’t rely on her sex appeal to sustain its performance. She is a little overweight, her hair is dyed black and she wears contact lenses. She plays the role of an average woman —a girl next door, perhaps.
The intention from Glazer is to show her as a representative of women in a more universal way. Watching the flick, we even forget that the character is played by Scarlett Johansson, the bombshell from Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point. It must have been difficult for a person accustomed to the star system to leave her ego aside, go to Scotland and suffer under the heavy weather by hunting strangers. Yes, Glazer used hidden cameras and the people initially approached on the streets were unaware they were being filmed.
Images recorded by those hidden cameras give even greater strangeness to Under the Skin, a sense that something really unexpected could happen at any moment. As if like a documentary made about the ritual of human seduction, and the stakes we never even consider because it would be something too rational.
Glazer chose to shoot in Scotland, and the climate of the country is a perfect dramatic frame for the story. No sunny days or storms — just rain and fog. Even the beautiful scenery of beaches and forests is strained, as if nature is an enemy that humanity has to fight against for space to exert its fullness.
Scotland is a hard place, as is the language of its inhabitants. There is no classic winter with pure white snow and beautiful landscapes, but images of personal coldness that reveal loneliness not only geographically, but spiritually as well. Yes, we’re back to the soul vs. the body quest, one that permeates the entire film.
When the story comes to an end, we are left with more questions than answers and more reflections than affirmations. In fact, the answers do not entirely satisfy the intellect even after completion of the film. This must have been Glazer’s very intention: constraining thought that he intuitively fills with silence. Despite all this, there’s a story here, immersed deeply under the skin of the characters and drowned in the same black liquid that swallows men seduced by Johansson’s character
Is the film a critique of the oppressive behavior of men in a male-dominated society? Yes, I’m sure this could be one interpretation. Does it aim to promote the appreciation of inner beauty (soul) vs. outer beauty (skin)? Yes, this can be another complementary reading that the plot allows. Does the film deal with the loneliness of those who cannot love or feel for others? Yes, this too. There are so many layers of understanding and examination that it is easy to imagine the director himself would have trouble defending a single focal point.
But isn’t that the real goal of an artwork? Often, the experience of spending two hours watching a strange film like this may not be the most enjoyable. However, when a movie is good, clever and challenging, it generates a debate of ideas and a great intellectual pleasure that is worth the effort. What was initially a period of two hours of tension, doubt and curiosity, instead becomes a stimulus for discussions that push the boundaries of cinema.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.