Under the Skin:An Alien Perspective
on the Human Condition
Nobody in Under the Skin gets a name. Naming characters is a human convention, and Under the Skin has an alien perspective.
The story involves a mysterious black-widow woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, seducing single young men who follow their lust to their own death. The film offers cool, detached style. There is no expository dialogue. We learn what's going on by watching it unfold.
Unleashed by men in motorcycle outfits, she drives a van around Glasgow acting the lost Englishwoman in Scotland. Although her ultimate lure is lust, her first trick is to prey on the helpful and protective instincts of men. She bides her time, watching the pulse of humanity. She'll ask for directions, and if everything works out, she'll give a lift to a helpful stranger (if he's a single man). She'll drive the man back to her web, a glassy black void of cinematic space where she slowly undresses, leading him across the screen.
What happens next is a mystery at first. The men occupy a different space than she does. She walks across the hard glassy surface, beckoning, and they walk down into the surface like warm, embracing water. Glazer isn't coy about it -- in due time he does "reveal" what happens to the victims. But the revelation itself is just another disturbing mystery.
The same is true for the identity of our black widow. Glazer eventually shows us what she is, but it deepens, rather than unravels, the mystery.
The music by Mica Levi helps preserve the mysterious tone. Levi uses recognizable instrumentation -- a small orchestra, heavy on violins -- but played in unconventional ways. A dramatic chord sounds, but one note in the chord slides up to another tone, as though played by an alien musician who thinks that's how violins are supposed to work.
After we finally get to see what gruesome thing happens under the glassy blue surface, Glazer shows us another "room," laser-red on black, that we can only guess is a garbage chute. The red room is a visual pinnacle, and it calls to mind (as do other shots) the bold design of Saul Bass (Psycho, Vertigo), the organic engineering of Douglass Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) and the abstract art of Stan Brakhage. Glazer includes these purely cinematic visual flourishes, while still keeping them relevant to the story.
The polished-glass lair stands in stark contrast to the very organic world of Scotland. At first you might ask "why Scotland?" It's a question that our man-killer herself asks a surfer she meets on the Scottish coast. "Because it's nowhere...?" he guesses. My own guess is that Glazer finds Scotland an earthy contrast to the minimalist glassy lair. In Glazer's lens, it's green, muddy, rough, and natural. There is wool and leather; wood, stone, and peat.
Cinematographer Daniel Landin shoots everything darkly, so that you find yourself leaning forward trying to see into the corners. Landin and editor Paul Watts seem to take cues from comic books. There is a broad spectrum of framing, from extreme closeups of Johansson's eyes, to extreme wide shots capturing dwarfed figures moving through the countryside. There are even a couple of important cutaways of closeups of ants and flies. These are frequently cut together like panels in a comic book, each showing a different aspect of the same scene.
There is a turning point in the black widow's arc when she picks up a man with an "elephant man" disfigurement, shadowed under his deep hoody. She compliments him on his hands and asks him about his luck with women. One of the first things he does is to reveal his lumpy face. He's obviously trying to save time, assuming she must not have noticed his disfigurement. This probably stops friendly women cold in their tracks. But she takes no notice of his condition and continues with her polite, encouraging conversation.
It's easy to sympathize with the guy, who says he's never really touched a woman. He's obviously not a ladykiller and "undeserving" of being killed for his lust. But of course that notion raises the question: do any of her victims actually "deserve" to be killed? Aren't they just following their biological and cultural programming? They were invited, after all.
Elephant man somehow escapes the black widow's web. Presumably, her growing fascination with humans has made her sympathetic. In the earlier scene she was unable to seduce the surfer before he died in the waves. His death piqued her fascination with human biology. There is some irony in her coming to understand human worth through the examples of death and deformity.
After Elephant man leaves her lair, she notices herself in a mirror and stares obsessively, as if noticing a pimple or a boil for the first time. This curiosity-cum-obsession with skin, conveyed without words, proves the role needed the right actress like Johansson, and not just any good-looking bait.
The Hunter Becomes Hunted
As her arc bends downward, Glazer shows the motorcycle men stepping up their activity, picking up her slack. She had been the confident, patient, efficient, but now she becomes cautious, paranoid, and on the run. By the end, the sexual power shifts completely and instead of seeing men as potential victims, she is pursued by a would-be rapist.
During the last act, she becomes a helpless figure, having left her van in a fog bank, looking out-of-place in her pink sweater and high-heeled boots. She again inspires the protective instinct of a man. This time, the nice Scotsman takes her through the drizzle to his dark, cozy home. He gives her dry clothes and offers her a safe, warm place to stay.
But even this well-meaning act is laced with sexual power. The next day, after a walk through the local ruins, the man makes a pass at her. For whatever reason, she decides to go along with it. Sex is still new to her because all of her previous conquests were trapped before they made contact. The mechanics of sex surprise and shock her, and send her on the run again.
There is a lot going on in Under the Skin. Yet because the style is minimalist, the film might seem slow to some. For me, though, discovering Under the Skin reminds me why I still go to the movies. Not only does it looks great as pure visual art, it's emotionally honest, and its internal themes are thoughtfully repeated and inverted.
Sometimes it takes an alien perspective to shed light on the human condition.