Rating: 3 out of 5
There are movies that challenge our conceptions of the cinema using misdirection, incomprehension, miscommunication, bafflement, really pushing what can be shown and rendered on screen. The early Jodorowsky films, Daisies, Carax’s Holy Motors, Pink Flamingos, these films and many more are so indescribable and isolated in terms of genre, there is a delight in watching something so itself. Johnathan Glazer’s Under The Skin was one such movie when it hit theaters in 2014, leaving a staggering, stunned trail of theatergoers in its wake. My memories of the film had somewhat faded, I was able to recall feelings but very few moments. Upon a second viewing the frustrating points of the film have become all the more annoying while the segments that work, have increased in transcendence and clarity. The beach scene! There are seldom scenes so generously shot, your attention is undivided, often the filmmakers force you to stare at something for much longer than you’d have liked to.
The story follows a young woman played by Scarlett Johansson who is (most likely) an alien. She seduces men throughout Scotland, what she does with them, I will not say, but this leads to a series of encounters and interactions that invariably alter the course of her life. There are fleeting instances where Under the Skin might be one of the greatest movies concerning itself with human connection or lack thereof. The first half is all slow burn, showing the routine, the process, even the more disturbing outcomes of these pickups. Johansson is perfectly cast, she is a terror, she is at the mercy of the immense power controlling her, giving her own strength a strange vulnerability and precariousness.
The beginning of this film is demanding, it feels like all the most difficult parts of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, just interior car shots and sparse, wandering, conversations. Johansson’s outfit evokes a trashy-Americana Anna Karina circa-Vivre Sa Vie, which actually shares some thematic territory with Under The Skin. One cannot help but recall the final conversation with the philosopher in the cafe when he pleads to Karina’s character that there is constant detachment and reattachment from life. Perhaps there is a reading of this film in which Johansson’s character is a prostitute just like Karina, they wade through shallow, ungrateful, unloving men, only to discover one that pulls them back in, thrusting them into an embrace of humanity. Both characters die in the end. Is this what society does to those who have joined in it?
The cinematography has a documentary like quality, the aforementioned beach scene is where this style suits the film strongest. There is a special horror in filming such a terrifying and life-shattering event so passively, as if the camera couldn’t care less about seeing the finer details. The soundtrack is incredible, completely standing on its own as a frightening slice of listening, with that said, it’s so good, it occasionally overtakes the tension built by the story. There is probably a better structured film inside Under The Skin, especially when discussing pacing in the first act and some occasionally cumbersome stylization, but I don’t think I’d want the mysteries or impressions of this film to surface in any other way.
Under The Skin may not be the masterpiece many critics (myself included) thought they’d seen in 2014 but it’s certainly a curious puzzle of a film with some undeniably fantastic imagery. This is a disturbing movie, that doesn’t easily draw comparisons: at its best it feels like the nightmarish spiral of Mulholland Drive, at its weakest, either one of Shane Carruth’s boring, heady, sci-fi daydreams. Under The Skin does not belong in the category of film that one enjoys necessarily, but one that invites you to play detective and draw conclusions and connections for yourself. Some of the conclusions are just stronger than others.