One doesn’t know if it took Jonathan Glazer nine months to complete Birth, his previous movie, but it is a pity that it took him nine years to finally release Under the Skin. The man is truly gifted. The complete antithesis of Independence Day and its bombastic clones, the movie treats alien invasion as the intimate drama of its unnamed heroin, splendidly interpreted by Scarlett Johanson, who seems to be unable to be bad in anything for quite some time now.
She drives a white van in concentric circles around Glasgow, stopping to ask directions to lonely men she lures into empty houses with the promise of sex. She is very good at small talk and they are unable to refuse her siren song and looks. As tedious and repetitive her routine is, following her is all but boring. She’s often filmed behind the wheel with the empty passenger seat at her side, her concentration never breaking while she scans the street in search for her next target. As was the case with the prolonged close up of Nicole Kidman’s face listening to concert music in Birth, Johanson expresses an impressive range of micro-emotions without being emoting. She’s literally hypnotic.
Once in the empty house, she progressively disrobes in a seemingly infinite dark space and the men follow her before disappearing in the most intriguing way. Under the Skin uses CGI in the cleverest way possible, not adding non-existing sets but subtracting any set, a smart choice for both an alien creature lost in space and her human preys. Three such scenes are shown in the movie, progressively revealing what is the trade she’s plying, the object of her quest, the function she fills. And that function is ghoulish.
A mysterious accomplice on a motorcycle helps her disposing of evidence, most strikingly in a scene requiring extraordinary guts to put onscreen as it involves a young man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the illness that affected John Merrick (The Elephant Man). That encounter is treated with incredible flair, as shocking as it is delicate. The way the episode ends is devastating and the woman starts feeling the strangest thing: reluctance to fulfill her search-and-destroy mission. She meets a good Samaritan and experience a series of weird events, being repelled by chocolate cake, not getting TV comedy or seemingly discovering her own shoulder blades. A creeping sense of sadness unfolds, furtively balanced by funny moments, counterpoints to her own dissonant tune.The sudden revelation of her true nature is both brutal and minimal in its violence, but it carries a lingering echo, as disturbing as it is unforgettable.
Checking IMDB made one aware that Under the Skin‘s original score won an outstanding 20 awards across the globe. The music, based on venomous strings reminiscent of snake charming, impressively blends into the soundscape designed for the movie, alternatively emphasising parts of it while muffling others. It is also interesting to learn that Scarlett Johanson won a prize for Best Naked / Seduction scene awarded by a feminine critic jury. She is a gorgeous woman and seems unwilling to remain fully clothed for very long in spite of Scotland’s rigorous climate, but it says more about the gullibility of lonely men being offered a lift by an unknown woman than it plays bare breasts as exploitation. Aliens, see, have understood a thing or two about what it means to be a human male.