Two films released in 2013 focus almost entirely on Scarlett Johansson. Spike Jonze’s Her was all about her bodiless presence, the gorgeousness of her voice, and the abstract idea of her as a purely sensual being, even embodied in the sexless guise of a machine. We never see Johansson’s face, not once, in Her.
Under The Skin is similar, except that in Jonathan Glazer’s remarkable and deeply horrendous film, her face is all that we see. The film pivots on the black alien glare of her eyes, shadowed in neon, endlessly reflected , mirrored, echoed. But, again, this is an abstraction. Try to imagine a colour that does not exist, or the vastness of space, perhaps. These things are inexplicable. This is a cold, cold film. Infinitely colder than Her. It is the coldness of trying to imagine something at the peripheries of human understanding. Glazer has created a disorienting, empty vision of inhumanity, or of something inhuman being awakened. And its coldness, its emptiness, vast and elemental, is its great weakness, somehow. But this does not make it any less affecting.
Johansson could have been just a woman. A serial killer, in the vein of Myra Hindley, but a woman, nonetheless. But she is, so far as we can tell, an alien, or something very similar. Certainly not human. She feasts on men, literally farms them for their innards, in some form of ritualistic ceremony. The idea that aliens, sentient beings from another world, require a dolled-up Scarlett Johansson to drive a knackered old van around Glasgow to harvest men is utterly ludicrous. That the film doesn’t feel ludicrous, not once, not for a moment, is testament to Glazer, his cinematographer and Johansson. They have crafted something remarkable out of schlock. The silence, the lack of exposition, is a great coup. Questions unanswered become a lifeline, a rope dragging us through the film. It seems to portray a world (no Glasgow jokes) where all human emotion has drained away, been mechanically eliminated, and all that remains is a creeping, groping lust. It is, in some ways, a film entirely about lusts and eroticism. But it is also the least erotic thing I have ever seen. Johansson is utterly bewitching, but she is a frozen thing. She is almost like a child, trapped in rhythms of necessity, and we recall that children could make the most effective butchers, if given proper incentive.
The alien comes to some awakening. She escapes from new Scotland (nightclubs, shopping centers, streetlights) into old Scotland (forests, highlands, fog). She meets a man who embodies tenderness, sympathy, maybe even love. She starts to disintegrate physically. She is stalked in a forest, the hunter become hunted. Lusts, lusts, lusts. We begin to see, maybe, that this almost inhuman film has a deeper altruism, somewhere, hidden. Repeat viewings could unearth moments of simple human kindness, or reasons not to feel totally crushed and bewildered.
But I will never watch Under The Skin again. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, particularly. It’s just that I treasure my sleep.