Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi thriller “Under The Skin” is being celebrated as “astonishing”, “unforgettable” and a “masterpiece”. Is that really true? The SOAS Spirit had a look.

By Dorina Marlen Heller

Scarlett Johansson plays a dead-eyed alien in "Under the Skin". Source: Studio Canal

Scarlett Johansson plays a dead-eyed alien in “Under the Skin”. Source: Studio Canal

I am not going to pretend that this film made any sense to me while watching it, or that I even liked it. To be honest, I thought it was an American-style wanna-be art-house film with no real story, compensating that by using confusing, disconnected shots. Very irritating, very weird and very uncomfortable to sit through. But days after watching it, so many of this film’s pictures still seem to be so close to my mind, so present and powerful; having done my research I must confess that this film actually does make sense. Quite a lot of sense even.

Scarlett Johansson stars as a dead-eyed alien who drives through the foggy widths of Scotland in a van, luring men to bring them back to her place and end them in a disturbing, bizarre way. Only that you don’t know that she is an alien until the very end, which makes the whole thing so hard to grasp. On the other hand, what makes this film very special is that it was actually filmed using real interactions with strangers – except for some key-scenes: a sexy, dark-haired Johansson driving around Glasgow and beyond, with a British accent, picking up random guys and casting her spell over them. Later on they were asked whether their scenes could be used for the actual film. This brilliant technique adds to the unnervingly real terror which is slowly built up. We are never sure what we are watching or what this films aims to be.

Trying to find a meaningful interpretation, reviewers draw on Kubrick, Polanski and Roeg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”), but in fact Glazer’s piece brings something rather new to modern cinema. This is achieved by using a very intriguing, powerful filming technique, his unconventional method of making real life interactions an essential part of the film and of course the exceptional, unusual performance of his main actress. Johansson’s alien, with about 12 lines in total and a facial expression close to blankness, gradually gets curious about what it must be like to be human. What it is like to feel empathy, vulnerability or to eat chocolate cake.  But trying to be one doesn’t seem to be working for her. In a way she becomes a projection surface for men’s desires and fantasies for women. A very deadly one though.

The high level of discomfort this film puts you through is very powerful; it says a lot about our society, what it means to be human and in this sense, it talks about ourselves. One thing is for sure, this film certainly got under my skin. And not in a good way.

“Under the Skin” plays at the Ritzy Picturehouse until the 31st of March.

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