“UNDER THE SKIN”, the new movie from Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) won’t be to everyone’s taste. Put it another way – it won’t be to most people’s tastes. It’s decidedly weird (which is probably why it’s been wrongly classified as a horror. It isn’t. So if you’re looking for horror, look elsewhere. And if you’re reluctant to go because it’s a horror, don’t be). To make any sense of it, you have to work at it… you have to go beneath its skin.
But it all works, somehow. It’s one of those movies that lingers on after the viewing.
Scarlett Johansson is Laura, and extra-terrestrial who we first meet as a single microscopic dot of light, like an optician’s probe, which slowly fills the screen to become an iris – so often our only means of seeing and judging people without looking beneath… you get it.
The scene cuts to a pitch-black road, out of which comes a thundering motorcycle, its lights slicing through the dark night. The leather clad, helmeted rider stops somewhere and wades into a roiling sea, from which he brings the dead body of a woman. It is this body, this skin, that our sexy alien slips into. And it is in this skin that she prowls the neon-lit, “Taxi-Driver-esque” night, in a nondescript van seeking out lonely single men. They are as lonely, perhaps as she is.
It is these men that she invites back into her dark lair (I’m prepared to follow Scarlett most places, but frankly, I wouldn’t go into that dark lair if it killed me). These easily, willingly seduced lost souls, attracted (duh) by Laura/Scarlett’s sexiness, slowly sink into a kind of black, amniotic fluid from which there can be no escape and in which their beings are destroyed, leaving, like a shedding snake, only the skin.
Their superficial ‘skin-deep’ attraction to Laura…the attraction to the flesh… is contrasted with a scene on a lonely, cold, pebbled beach where there’s a young family frolicking. There’s a father, mother, eighteen year-old baby and a dog. The dog swims out into the cascading waves, followed foolishly by the mother seeking to rescue it; and then followed by the husband, fully clad in his clothes, desperately trying to rescue and then find his wife who has disappeared into the darkness. Laura – ever emotionless – witnesses this family tragedy: their deaths caused by a reckless abundance of love, of the need to rescue the loved one or die attempting.
Perhaps this resonates within Laura’s alien heart (or hearts, who knows with these ET’s) as one night, the mark she zeroes in on is a man who has clearly been rejected by society. He is a grotesque, elephant-man type individual – one rejected and scorned by society, who have only ever seen his ugliness.
Unlike everyone else, she is not repulsed; and that in itself, for this man, is an act of kindness he’s never had. It is an act of kindness that is mirrored later on when what seems to be another moment of superficial male lust turns out to be male protectiveness. This simple need to offer her protection leaves her non-plussed. It forces her to look at herself, to actually examine the skin she’s in; and in this introspection, she shed her emotionless mien and grows scared and vulnerable. For it is easier to be bold by being superficial. It is easier to be attracted and repulsed by what people look like than to work harder to look within. The outside skin is a kind of armour that we wear for the occasion.
But, as the movie suggests, be prepared to cope with what lies within.
One Mica Levi is credited as being to composer to the movie’s score. Its often dissonant, otherworldly, nervous sounds invest a mood of menace and dread to commonplace scenes of socialization and shopping centers, and images of a tempestuous nature. The movie – all shot at night where the shadows linger in the corner of the frames – keeps us always on edge as it builds to its flaming denoument.
Apparently many of the scenes – of Laura/Scarlett (in a black wig) walking through shopping centers, stopping to chat up men on the roadside etc. were shot in situ. Real Scottish guys stunned to be ‘picked up’ by this stunner. Who remained incognito. This great icon of beauty seemingly wasn’t recognized by the Scottish shoppers she strolled amongst.
She was just, you could say, a well disguised alien in their midst.