Film Review: Under The Skin

Originally posted online for York Vision.

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Seeing the trailer for Under The Skin, I was drawn to it by the casting of Scarlett Johansson. In this film, she plays a woman with a penchant for murder. Delighted by such an unusual character for Scarlett Johansson to portray, I had to see it.

The opening scene is a bright light against a dark background. There are concentric circles creating a tunnel-like effect and a female voice repeating phonetic sounds. This confusingly stretches out for a very long minute, which made me think that this might be a unknown production company’s film ident and not the opening scene. With a close-up of an eye, the title screen flashes up and then cuts to a busy city-centre in Glasgow. I’m immediately frustrated and angry. What the hell was that?

A very British Scarlett Johansson with a very British accent is touring Scotland in her white van of dreams, engaging men in conversation and flattering them into getting into her van. Once in the van, she continues to make small talk with them on the vain hope that they will come back to her place. It’s Scarlett Johansson, they all do.

In one instance and under the pretence of a quickie, Johansson guides this man into an endlessly dark room, where they both undress. Following the beautiful form of Johansson, he continues to walk forward until he begins to unflinchingly descend into a pool without any struggle, while she watches from afar. As soon as the water covers his head, she redresses and leaves to claim her next victim and repeat this process again. I was left assuming that this man was now dead with no tangible cause to believe or not believe this. Is the pool real? Did any of that scene really happen or was it his dream? Is it a metaphor? What am I not getting here?

Over an hour into Under The Skin, with no resolving explanation and no discernable plot, two audience members walk out. Gripped by the irrepressible need to see this to the end, I ignore every fibre of my being that wants to leave.

Just as this film begins to feel like the never-ending adventures of British Scarlett Johansson killing hitchhikers, something not quite the same happens. Johansson picks up a facially disfigured man and offers him a lift. He has an almost laughable insistence that he wants to be dropped off at Tesco but she persuades him to come back to her place for an evening of sexy times. The next morning, it turns out that (possibly because of compassion? Again, no explanation) she didn’t drown him in the death pool. He runs out of the house and ventures on an early morning naked ramble. But he is picked up by a nameless biker and killed anyway.

The nameless biker is significant…somehow. He turns up a few times to wordlessly communicate with Johansson and to transport dead bodies. Similarly, to the death pool, the nameless biker has no explanation, leaving the audience to find their own interpretation with very few tools to do so.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer and brought to the screen from the same-titled book by Michel Faber, Under The Skin seems more like an art piece than an actual film. There are a myriad of eerie vignettes, interspersed with regular crowd scenes of everyday life in a busy town. In one scene, Johansson attempts to eat a bite of chocolate cake at a local diner but vomits it right back up, much to the disgust of a nearby patrons. Is it because she’s so consumed with the guilt of killing those chaps in the death pool? Seriously, I don’t understand the death pool.

It’s at this point that my note-taking stops. Personally, I’m surprised I was able to coherently relay all of that from my brain to my notepad without simply scrawling “I DON’T GET IT” over and over. Without spoiling the ending (for all of those that intend to watch this film, I’m possibly harshly assuming not many), Johansson’s character definitely is an alien that is confused about being human. She doesn’t make it to the end of the film.

For me, I have since not been able to shake the residual feeling that seeing this film has been two hours that I’ll never get back. But how can this be – it’s a film with Scarlett Johansson in it! However, the redeeming characteristics that Under The Skin claws itself back from the brink with is its guerrilla-style use of camera-work and its soundtrack.

The soundtrack, the first film soundtrack to be composed by Mica Levi, worked in that it kept me on edge for the whole film. The high-pitched screech of the stringed instruments was at once like metal-on-metal scraping and fingernails down a chalkboard. The intensity of the drums was a mirror of an increased heartbeat. I sincerely hope that Levi has the chance to sink her teeth into more high-budget films as her composition and style forUnder The Skin was spot-on.

Using hidden cameras while a not-overly-disguised Scarlett Johansson drives around and picks up genuinely random strangers seems like the stuff of discarded ideas from a brainstorming meeting. It couldn’t work, surely? It’s seriously low-budget and it does work. None of these chaps realise that this beautiful woman driving a van and offering them a lift is in fact Scarlett Johansson. A lesson in itself, scrutinise everyone. One of your friends could be Scarlett Johansson right now.

Stylistically, Under The Skin is nothing fancy, no bells and whistles, and a very minimal script. This is a potentially divisive film to see if you’re a fan of Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer or Michel Faber. On plot alone, there is no provocative aspect to Under The Skin.

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