Under the Skin Dir. Jonathan Glazer

[A24 Films; 2014]

Styles: sci-fi, 1970s, documentary, experimental
Others: Enter the Void, Mulholland Drive, Upstream Color, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Birth

Much of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin feels like it’s spent in suspense — or routine — waiting for something. Scarlett Johansson plays a perhaps-confused alien succubus; she drives around Scotland, pretending to be lost, asking men for directions, asking if they have any friends or any family. Those who don’t she abducts. She picks up a man with a facial disfiguration (Adam Pearson):

“Have you ever been with a woman?” she asks. He just looks away.

“Would you like to touch my face?” He does.

“Would you like to touch my neck?” He does.

She has an understanding that she is attractive. Her body was given to her by a man (Jeremy McWilliams) who rides a motorcycle — her accomplice, or her overseer. It was the body of a girl who drowned, I suppose, as he carried her from a river. The alien doesn’t take her skin; she takes the clothes, and seems to become a duplicate of the body. The body cries, making eye contact with her.

And yet, even though she knows that she is attractive, even though she seduces her victims and undresses with them, she later stares into the mirror, naked. This is my body, she seems to think. She moves her hand to her neck, where the man with the facial disfigurement touched her, breathing heavily. This is my neck, she thinks, and it is attractive. When she finally tries to have sex with a man, she stops after only a minute, flinging herself over to the end of the bed. She hurriedly shines a lamp between her legs, inspecting herself. What is this?

She doesn’t know — or maybe does not ever consider — if she is evil or not; she lets the man with the disfigurement go, unlike all of her other victims; the man on the motorcycle chases him down, anyway, as he wanders through fields of tall grass naked and confused, seduced, and alone. Earlier, when she asks him to come over to her place, after he had touched her face and her neck slowly, and she called his hands “beautiful,” he pinched himself.

“Am I dreaming?” he asks, over and over.

“Yes,” she says.

She leads all of the men into a smooth and reflective black plane, where they follow her as she undresses — more and more with each man, with the first just her shirt coming off, but by the third man she is naked — and then, once all of their clothes are off, they descend, seemingly without hesitation, into a body of gelatin or liquid, where they are suspended until suddenly deteriorating silently. This is in stark contrast to the scene that starts the movie, when the succubus steals the body of the dead girl, which takes place among impossible white, luminescent and shining, infinite.

There are many more of these visually-stunning and inventive moments. But Under the Skin is not “interesting” to look at a lot of the time, mostly taking place in a van as Scarlett Johansson’s character drives around the streets of Scotland, talking to men, taking a few of them, leaving most of them where they are. Glazer employed documentary techniques for these scenes — everyday non-actors, unstaged footage of crowds — giving them the feeling of anthropological filmmaking, almost predatory in its detached observation.

The alien does not seduce any more men after the man with the facial disfigurement; she seems to be curious, innocent. Early on, she witnesses a family drowning in the ocean. She stares, blank. Her eyes ring of the same emptiness when she stares at herself in the mirror, cavernous and unmoving.

The confused alien story has played out similarly (at least plotwise) before, as in The Man Who Fell To Earth, maybe the most worthy analogue — also an adaptation that uses that term liberally, at once also very sexual, sort of or in part about sexuality, but hardly sexy. And it also calls to mind Michael Myers, our most vacant villain, who looks on unblinkingly and without the barest thread of empathy at his victims, not a person at all. Throughout, I was reminded of the scene in Halloween 5 when Myers takes his mask off to show his niece his face, obscured by a crescent of shadow. She says, “You’re just like me,” and he cries, just before he puts his mask back on, becoming murderous again. Under the Skin, too, lends feelings to the numb, turns human that which is not.

For all that Under the Skin is saying, there is at least as much that it leaves unsaid. Glazer elides all but the most basic of plot points, and the ensuing vagueness gets at a kind of poetry rather than a kind of story; like poetry, the point isn’t necessarily the purpose. For many viewers, this might be a fault: it is broken, it never pays off, it never finds its footing or an obvious plot. Watching Under the Skin, at some point, you realize it’s no longer setting things up and that this is just how the rest is going to go. That realization might not feel good. It is like a lot of loops out of phase with one another: out of sync, in to sync, then out — waves crashing into one another before lapping up on shore. There are some undeniably beautiful pieces; for some viewers, those pieces might also include all the film’s echoing empty noise.

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