UNDER THE SKIN: A glimpse inside our real selves

All my friends told me to watch Jonathan Glazer’s new sci-fi film starring Scarlett Johansson. Everybody I know who has seen it told me it was great, everyone I know who hasn’t seen it told me they really, really wanted to. Everybody I know who hasn’t heard of it are my parents, and they don’t have awareness much in lieu of modern movies. There is no anyone else.

So naturally, I didn’t see this film.

It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did, it’s just that it didn’t play near me in time for me to actually get to see it, and by the time it came out on home media, I was too busy watching everything else.

In a way, I’m glad I waited, to let the effect of it all wear off, because expectations are useless when it comes to UNDER THE SKIN. Whatever it was that I thought about this movie, I was wrong. Or maybe wrong isn’t the right word, but misplaced. Misguided. Something with a miss. Missed. I missed.

UNDER THE SKIN is hypnotic. It takes all the things that make science fiction great for epic, sweeping political allegories, and strips away the pretentiousness that often goes hand in hand with those kind of things. Instead, it focuses in on a personal story. The framework gets smaller to let the story get bigger. Johansson plays a nameless woman – if you read the book, you’ll get more of her backstory – an alien, who preys on men by inviting them back to her place, a black, reflective void, seducing them, and then… put it this way, I’ve never seen something quite like what she does to them happen in the movies. She is very selective in her choices of men. She drives around in a predatory van, pulling over to ask for directions and then offering a ride if the man meets her criteria: single, alone, and interested. That last one might be the most important. It’s not enough for her that they be un-missable post-abduction, they have to want her, crave her, lust after her. Not explicitly, necessarily, but it must be there, that carnal desire, the willingness to follow a strange woman into a strange place with no questions asked, purely in the pursuit of nameless, emotionless sex.

Of course, her prey doesn’t realize they are stepping into a trap until it is too late. The way she seduces them makes it clear that they probably wouldn’t care, either, as they follow her into the void, stripping out of their clothes, sometimes without even needing prompting from her, until they literally walk themselves into their doom. All she needs to do is exist, a body to be followed, desired, and ultimately, lost.

Until she meets a disfigured man who doesn’t so much desire her as he has forgotten he desires anyone. She warms him up slowly, carefully teasing him. It is almost cruel how she encourages him to regain touch with his sensualities, caressing his hands, letting him, telling him to caress her cheek, her neck. Ignored by the rest of the world, to him she represents everything he has been told his entire life that he will never get. She is forbidden, not by rules, but by reality. An untouchable, an angel, an alien.

She succeeds in getting him to her place only by finally stripping completely naked herself, and still he proceeds cautiously, stumbling like a lost soul after her, barely even capable of lust, but fuelled by the chance of ending his pain. She has second thoughts.

At this point the movie breaks into it’s second piece. If the first half is about her stalking and feasting of her prey, the second half is about her agency as a person, and it is here that the movie makes its most piercing commentary. Science fiction is the stuff of allegory, reflecting our society, holding up a mirror to our iniquities, needing to make no comment other than to reveal to us our own sin. Here Glazer takes bold moves, as Johansson’s character becomes a person, indeed a woman, choosing agency over anonymity and finding out, to her horror, that the choice isn’t hers to make.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot since (a) everyone’s already seen this movie (b) there aren’t really any “spoilers” to give away and (c) this isn’t Wikipedia, but Glazer’s metaphor for rape, violence against women and its effects both on men and women, and the way society strips women of any of their personhood for the sake of… well, of nothing, is both visually arresting and strongly affecting.

Johansson gives a stellar performance, displaying her range but also her control with this character, but equally important is her off-screen personality. The film knows this, knows Johansson, both her the actor and her the person, which makes the story all the more important to tell. Famous for her looks, Johansson is really more of today’s comic-book “badass woman” or “strong woman” or “whatever-bullshit-adjective-to-replace-actual-character woman” and that is a tragedy, as she is a phenomenal actress and a beautiful person. Playing off of this fact, playing off of Johansson’s own nude-photo scandal by having her featured full-nude for the first time in a scene that demands we see things from a woman’s perspective – a self-reflective sensual scene about the discovery of a woman’s body by a woman herself that is in no way sexual in the predatory sense or even invoking of an outsider’s perspective – and playing off of the raging issue of rape and violence, UNDER THE SKIN makes it very clear to its viewers how much of a tearing and violent effect sexual assault has on women.

The final twist of the knife, as it were, is to show the effect sexual violence has on men. I cannot write anything better on this topic than Britt Hayes who covered this over at ScreenCrush:

The ultimate tragedy comes later, as Laura lets her guard down to try and live as a human and is attacked by a stranger. The assault breaks her, literally, revealing her true form, and inciting a terrifying incident that speaks to the impulsive but sadly inherent nature of man to fear what’s under the female’s skin, so to speak, and to let that fear dictate their actions, manifesting as repulsion and dismissal.

Read More: Reel Women: Getting ‘Under the Skin’ of Scarlett Johansson’s Ill-Fated Transformation | http://screencrush.com/reel-women-under-the-skin/?trackback=tsmclip

UNDER THE SKIN is possibly the most personally affecting movie I watched this year, and I’ll be talking about it for years to come. It is achingly beautiful, cinematographer Daniel Landin shoots with both surrealistic, dreamy imagery and stark, realistic urgency to create a film that literally moves with its story and with its character’s journey, beginning with a world both familiar and strange and ending with a world strangely familiar, violently familiar, even hauntingly familiar. Of course, Johansson gives a poetic performance, and Glazer’s direction and script, co-written with Walter Campbell loosely based on the novel by Michael Faber are sharp, poignant and devastating.

I ended up being very glad that I waited to see this film, although tragically so. Many of the events of 2014 cast a dark shadow over gender equality and progressiveness, making this film even more urgent. I would hope that UNDER THE SKIN would help us realize the world we live in, open our eyes to what goes on within us personally and within us culturally, and ultimately, along with spellbinding us for its runtime, wake us up a little bit to how we can make things better.




Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s