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UNDER THE SKIN (review)

under_the_skinUNDER THE SKIN
Written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson
 
“Am I dreaming?”

“Yes, we are.”

Scarlett Johansson is the woman who fell to earth in Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerizing creation, UNDER THE SKIN. While borrowing heavily from the films of Stanley Kubrick and Nicholas Roeg, Glazer’s latest still manages to remain completely original. Buoyed by a haunting score, masterful cinematography, and an excellent leading performance, UNDER THE SKIN is a brilliant, but extremely demanding film.

Now, if a woman who looks like Johansson were to pull up to you on the side of the road in a van and ask if you need a ride, you would go with her, right? What about when she begins to undress, while leading you into a pool of thick, black goo? Would you still follow along? Essentially this is the simplified version of the plot of UNDER THE SKIN. While this version sounds rather plain, the film is anything but. Johansson plays an unnamed extraterrestrial, who has assumed human form for her visit to earth. Her mission? To seduce as many men as possible to their deaths without leaving any traces behind. If anything is left behind, or does not go according to plan, a mysterious man on a motorcycle – who may possibly be another alien – swings by to clean things up. It is never made clear exactly why Johansson’s creature is doing these things, though one shot implies the men’s innards are being used.

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UNDER THE SKIN can be a rather difficult film. To fully appreciate its brilliance, you must fully bind yourself, both mentally and emotionally, to the film.  As viewers of UNDER THE SKIN, we are not only voyeurs, as we would be for most films, but also partners, complicit in the act. By watching the creature pick up these men from the side of the road, we are essentially committing the act along with her. One must be prepared to join this creature on her journey if one expects to enjoy the film. This also hinges on Johansson, who isn’t always a great actress, but when working with a great director (see Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, or Peter Webber), she can be fantastic. Fortunately, under Glazer’s direction, Johansson is astounding. This is by far the best performance of her career, one that she may never be able to top.

While some would argue otherwise, there is a lot more to this film than an alien feeding off of helpless men. As the film opens, Johansson’s character features no real human emotions, but as the story progresses, she begins to learn empathy, and tries to do her best to become a real person. This brings us the question of what makes a real person. Like the many of the men she meets, this creature is completely uncomfortable in her own skin. At one point, the creature sits alone in a restaurant, attempting to eat a slice of cake. At first from afar, the cake looks delicious, but as Glazer moves his camera uncomfortably close to the slice, the cake takes on another form, appearing as a foreign object. Fellow restaurant-goers gawk as Johansson gags at the taste of the cake. It is at this moment that we begin to identify ourselves with this creature, who at the beginning of the film was like a foreign object to the viewers.

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Before UNDER THE SKIN, Glazer had not released a film since 2004’s BIRTH (which was itself another bewildering experience). It can be frustrating when a filmmaker takes so long to release their next film, but in this case, it is completely understandable. Nine years was certainly needed for perfecting this heavy yet delicate film. UNDER THE SKIN is a masterpiece that will both soothe and unnerve you at the same time. Those who refuse to give themselves over to it will certainly miss out on a film that is destined to be one of the best of the decade. Fortunately, Johansson is pretty irresistible.

5 sheep

 

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One Comment

  1. (Some “spoilers”)

    This film is just incredible. It is absolutely riveting from start to finish, thanks, like you said, to a brilliant score, breathtaking cinematography and what likely may be the best performance of Johansson’s career. Sadly, I’m not sure many people will choose to see it, as Glazer presents this story as a great challenge to his viewers. If you’re willing to be a more active viewer though, it is fascinating because, again as you said, we are on this journey with her. Everything she feels as foreign is just as alien to us as well. We don’t know why she does what she does or what purpose it serves but why would we? We’re not aliens. All we can do is watch as her mission begins to touch her in ways she had never thought of.

    The only thing I disagree with in your review is that I felt her turning point came with her interaction with the disfigured man. Before then, she doesn’t touch any of the men. His lack of human contact and the barrier she breaks by allowing him to touch her ignites something in her as she identifies with him without even realizing she felt that too. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she had no idea she could feel at all.

    I will need to see it again to get a stronger sense as to what Glazer might have been implying thematically but again, I think it is open ended enough to allow for many interpretations. Intimacy is complicated by nature and I don’t think there is any simple way to explain away this film.

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