Weekend Film Recommendation: Under the Skin

It’s October again, which means that we’re kicking off another month of horror-themed movies here at RBC! The first in the series is a new interpretation on the alien femme fatale story, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The action begins with a motorcyclist bringing a lifeless woman to the back of his van. There, his accomplice, a naked woman played by Scarlett Johansson, takes the victim’s clothes for herself. Already five minutes in to the film, and very little has been explained yet, nor will it for much of what follows. Instead, viewers have to divine who the characters are, and what their motivations may be, based on the smallest fragments of information.

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So, when the woman starts driving the van around the streets of Glasgow with the intent to seduce men and bring them back to her home, we believe we may have a grasp on what she’s about. We’d be wrong. Once inside her home, we learn that its interior is nothing but a pool of immaculate black oil, into which the woman’s suitors descend and are consumed during their pursuit of her. It’s not clear what happens to the men once they are submerged in the oil until half way through the film. By that point, the woman has amassed a sufficient number of victims that one of them notices another suspended in the mysterious black fluid. Upon reaching out to his fellow captive, he finds that the other man disappears into nothingness, leaving only skin behind.

Consequently, much of the first half of the film is devoted to trying to decipher who this protagonist is, what’s happening to the men she seduces, and why she’s doing it. Answers to any of these questions remain elusive. Therefore, you might just settle on thinking of her as an alien simply to make things easier on yourself. Yet one of the remarkable successes of Under the Skin is that we learn to invest in and sympathize with her all the same, despite all this not-knowing.

So, in the second half of the film, as the alien begins to develop self-awareness and a creeping sense that she prefers not to be the fatal seductress that the motorcyclist expects her to be, we find ourselves oddly pleased. Notably, the pleasure we get from this change of heart is emphatically not the sense of relief one might expect from learning that a killer has decided to go straight; rather, it’s the kind of delight we might more ordinarily associate with a teenager learning who her friends are and where she fits in.

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The dialogue for the whole film could probably fit onto a single sheet of paper, and the plot is similarly bare. But the film deserves to be appreciated much more for its artistic flair than for its storyline anyway. There’s something identifiably interesting about the way Glazer chose to shoot Under the Skin, and it’s not something that leaps out from the opening credits. Rather, there’s just something about the feel of it. Take, for example, the scenes in which the alien drove around the streets of Glasgow, scoping out men: to film these, Johansson drove up to assorted passers-by, all of them strangers, and improvised the takes that were then included in the film. Apparently, no-one believed they were being propositioned by a Hollywood actress at the time.

Notwithstanding the impressive attention to visual style, you’d barely recognize that Under the Skin is the brainchild of the same person to have directed Sexy Beast (reviewed here). While I praised Sexy Beast very highly, I limited that praise because of what I felt was a fairly ham-handed approach to metaphor and symbolism. The same simply can’t be said of Under the Skin. To the contrary, in this film Glazer’s use of figurative imagery is so abstruse that much of it probably makes sense only to him. Many will find this deeply frustrating, and there were certainly points when it had this effect on me.

With that said, Under the Skin rewards patience. It is just over an hour and a half long, and the final six minutes are completely mesmerizing. Without spoiling anything, the ending addresses some—although by no means very many—of the unanswered questions that propel much of the action forward. Moreover, the ending even provides the first invitation to grapple with some of the moral complexities raised by the Alien’s adventures.

It’s sensitive, provocative, and ghoulishly scary. Under the Skin is a perfect way to start off horror movie month. Enjoy!

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.