There may not be another film playing at TIFF this year that has a more delicious meta-narrative angle than Under the Skin. Director Jonathan Glazer’s first feature film in almost ten years has attracted a reasonably large amount of attention for that very fact: that it marks the end of a substantial absence by an admired and unique filmmaker. But it also has attracted attention for the fact that it stars Scarlett Johansson, one of the most admired figures in the industry for let’s just say her physical assets, as well as the fact that she is prominently featured in the nude in this movie.
The story of the film is that Johansson, credited as “Laura,” although I’m not sure she is ever addressed as such in the movie itself, is a mysterious, other-worldly figure who stalks men on secluded streets somewhere in Scotland, and when she picks them up, leads them into some dark room where it’s unclear precisely what happens to them. In the Michel Faber novel on which the movie is based—it might be better to say inspired rather than strictly based—the main character is an alien working for an extraterrestrial corporation that is seeking human flesh for residents of their home planet to eat. The movie leaves these details abstract.
Anyone who is expecting anything but an interpretive, impressionistic piece of filmmaking is going to be rather surprised and potentially severely disappointed by Under the Skin, a title that suggests an interest in things beneath the surface. Those open to an experience that is puzzling, mood-intensive, eerily suspenseful and at times magnificently gorgeous will likely be delighted by a rare cinematic treat.
Let’s talk about the meta aspects of the movie for a moment. Since its showings first at the Venice Film Festival and then this past week at TIFF, Glazer and company have discussed their decision to employ non-professional actors to give their film a sense of menacing realism; many of the men Johansson picks up in her unmarked van were actual people she encountered while driving around. They are people who did not know they were being filmed at the time. The interactions they have on the screen before us are, apparently, unscripted, unrehearsed, unexpected human encounters with an unrecognizable Scarlett Johansson.
This gives the movie a quality that contributes to how the film could be interpreted. It is certainly addressing topics of sexuality and power relations, which tend to go hand in hand, as well as the notion of the gaze and superficiality and all that. What it’s saying about these things more specifically is best determined by the viewer, which is Glazer’s exact intended result for his movie, and one of the most fresh and exciting things about it.
The fact that these are men who are being lured into a van by a stranger who just happens to look and talk and smile at them like Scarlett Johansson is interesting. Essentially, their overwhelming desire to enter into a close and personal setting with her, or perhaps their powerlessness to her deliberate charm and false vulnerability, becomes a trap set by Glazer and Johansson which ends up with these men being in a movie without knowing it. Of course, they would have to sign a release form and go on to participate in scenes that required a bit further involvement after their initial interaction, but the first encounter was, we’re told, unwitting.
Then there’s the idea that this movie is being promoted by and developing a reputation around the seductive performance of Johansson. A quick look at the trailer below can verify this. The filmmakers had to know that word about their star actress’ nude scenes would generate a certain level and type of attention, but after seeing the movie, it’s as though this meta-narrative element, the story of the movie that’s indeed external to the movie itself, is meant as a trap to lure the same type of men targeted by the protagonist in the movie to sitting through a film that they most likely would not particularly enjoy. When you see what happens to the men in the film, that they become stuck in some kind of imprisoned state, you can’t help but get the feeling that there are dudes in the theatre that have to be feeling the exact same way.
Glazer truly seems as sure of himself as ever in this effort, creating a combination of images and sound that viewers are likely to keep in their heads for long after the movie ends. The sound design and music in particular are as captivating as the unforgettable images—the black backdrop and reflective surface this girl takes these men to, which makes the whole sequence look like a series of inkblots, a crying infant abandoned in a beach, a victimized man frozen in this limbo land and almost popping like a balloon.
Johansson’s performance here must also be listed as a true highlight. She has been described as fearless for taking on this role, a term that may be misused in some instances but is not at all out of place as a label here. Her gaze, both at the men she is puzzled by and then at her own body, accounts for many of the movie’s most fascinating shots. There does not seem to be any question from the beginning that her character is not of this world; the way she stares at things and people instantly conveys a sense of wonder and incredulity. The shift in what interests her, her seeming rebellion against the task set out for her in favor of her own interests, makes up the latter portion of the film and causes a slight recalibration of tone, but in hindsight, this shift is every bit as interesting as the initial sequences in the film, even if it feels a bit jarring at the time.
This is not exactly an easy film to watch. People are already referring to it as “challenging,” which is shorthand for saying it’s not for everyone. It takes its time, lets moments linger, and lets images set in. What may be more difficult is trying to tease out just what it is supposed to mean, and making sense of many of the odd details (who, exactly, is the man on the motorcycle?). Those who take joy in those types of interpretive challenges, have at it. Leaving the theater, I heard someone refer to it as “the tragedy of being a woman.” Could be! On the surface, Under the Skin is a puzzling yet beautiful film featuring a fine performance by Scarlett Johansson, although beneath the surface is likely where its greatest riches lie.