Under the Skin Review: A Marvel of Mood and Celebrity
Recently, Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York Magazine and editor of RogerEbert.com, pleaded for film writers to incorporate discussions of music, lighting, camera placement and other filmmaking methods that enhance a story.
“Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms,” Seitz wrote. “They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.”
To review Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin these are the only items to critique. Glazer’s film is – in moments – creepy, horrific, compassionate, callous, sexy, funny and maddening. The entire experience is a marvel of mood and celebrity. Glazer has dropped his audience into a beguiling world where things that could be explained, but aren’t. He is so certain of his visual sense to show the story and not tell it. If it isn’t a breath of fresh air, it’s certainly an inhalation of a distress signal.
The story that you get is such: Scarlett Johansson is an alien. Wearing a fake fur coat, lipstick, heels and acid washed jeans, she cruises Glasgow at night in a white van. Always lost, she asks men on the street for directions and then, if they’re willing, takes them back to her apartment. Stripping as she walks backward in a pitch black box of an apartment, her prey approaches her but wades into a watery goop that traps them beneath the surface. A mosquito in amber (with an erection) their innards are extracted into a conveyer belt that feeds… something… somewhere. There is a motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) who seems to be her fixer; covering any evidence she might leave behind.
While attempting to seduce a surfer (Krystof Hadek) on a beach she witnesses the danger of human compassion but cannot process it. The surfer sees a dog drift into the ocean, further away from shore. A woman swims out to it, her husband, screaming, follows her into the waves. The surfer sees them struggle and swims out to rescue them. He washes ashore, the couple is lost, and their infant child is left wailing on the rocks. Johansson approaches the surfer again. This time she hits the surfer over the head with a rock.
I mention this scene because – more than the seductions and more than the trippy reveal of their bodies decaying in her lair – this scene best encapsulates the visually-coded experience of watching Under the Skin. Johansson is presented with visuals of humanity that she cannot process: empathy, heroism, fear and grief. As an alien it is only the adult female body that she was given that separates her from the wailing infant on the shore, left by her to also fend for itself in a confusing circumstance.
That body belongs to Johansson. Under the Skin works magnificently for that very reason. Not because that body is on display for seduction, but because she is a celebrity and celebrities might as well be aliens dropped down from somewhere else, wholly separate species from the rest of us. The men that she picks up speak in very thick Scottish accents. While their speech might be difficult for U.S. audiences to decipher, Glazer has utilized the tin sound of an empty cargo van to make the men sounds as otherworldly to the audience as they do to Johansson’s alien.
These men were also not real actors. Glazer put a few hidden cameras into the van and recorded their interactions with Johansson. At some point they were notified that they were being filmed for a movie and if they were interested in continuing being filmed they could go to the next location. Although no longer fulfilling the circumstantial sexual fantasy, they’re now fulfilling the fantasy of acting with a celebrity.
I keep referring to the alien as Scarlett Johansson but that isn’t just because her alien has no name. Despite the black wig the audience is always aware that we are watching Johansson in an experiment. That isn’t to say that her performance is distracting. Indeed – though she lacks substantial dialogue – through her stance, walk, lean and ability to turn on a survival charm at once, she’s perhaps never been better. Including Her, Johansson has now given two amazing performances as a woman who isn’t human (three if you can count her rom-com obsessed bimbo in Don Jon). Post-Lost in Translation Johansson has mostly been used in Hollywood as a commodity: breasts and a deep voice. In Under the Skin, Glazer has explored that as a narrative.
First, Johansson uses that commodity to easily lure men into a trap. More interestingly, once Johansson’s alien begins to explore the limitations of her own body – unlike those that she observes, she is unable to eat cake and when attempting actual intercourse she is unable to be penetrated – the instances seem to closely align to how society scrutinizes celebrities. They are, after all, not like us. There are different, rigorous rules for both their behavior and the maintenance of their bodies for our enjoyment. These rules are enhanced if the celebrity skin belongs to a woman. And as Johansson’s alien learns more about her shape and vessel, she also becomes painfully aware of the threat that her body poses her in the outside world. Male desire no longer just drops into a gooey void.
Glazer’s last film, 2004’s Birth, had a visual and aural consistency that was stronger than the story. His camera (made fluid by the late DP master Harris Savides, with multiple long tracking shots) and score (perhaps the best from workaholic composer Alexandre Desplat) greatly enhanced the film. But Glazer was still telling a story largely through dialogue and reaction to dialogue.
Under the Skin does have a beginning (the woman’s genesis in her new body), middle (her abandonment of her extraterrestrial role) and end. However, all of these points in the story are told through visuals alone. To pull off the themes that Glazer and Johansson are engaging in – with minimal dialogue and no explanatory set-up of who Johansson is, who the man on the motorcycle is and where that conveyer belt of man-goo goes to and for what purpose – Glazer has to be able to maintain a consistent aural and visual interest. It is here, in the mood of the film, that Glazer makes something wholly original and awe inspiring.
Aided by a sinister lullaby from composer Mica Levi (Micachu from Micachu and The Shapes), Glazer creates a repetition in the mechanics of the alien world. Not since the repeated hallway pass set to Yumeji’s theme in In the Mood for Love has repetition in visual composition and score been so glorious as it is here. Visually, there’s a screen-filling white as her identity forms and a screen-filling blackness as she fulfills her harvest. Outside of that death box, Glazer films a bleak gray sky set against the isolated pines of Scotland. The only color of optimism in her world is a gold vision that flutters when she is helped up by strangers.
Needless to say this differently structured film that rests entirely on visual and aural cues, will not be for everyone. At the press screening that I attended the film ended with some pockets of applause and then some laughter at that applause. I didn’t applaud. I still needed that drive home. My initial reaction was somewhere between maddening and amazing.
The thing with mood is – when it is done well – it lingers. It continues to wash over you. Back into the ocean went my desire for answers. The presentation is so committed, it’s my belief that there’s no need for more. We’ve already been given an entirely different world.