Casual sex is – in theory – a really rather strange concept. You hover around a bar or a club or some other public place, pick a target, flash your proverbial plumage and wait for a positive or negative response. A few drinks and some small talk later, the two of you are in bed. It at once flies in the face of base animal nature and returns us to it – renouncing the homo sapiens-esque tradition of courting, in favour of fundamental pleasure-seeking.
While it may not seem like it at first, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is as much about casual sex as it as about an alien feasting on the unwitting male population of Scotland. This alien (played to creepy effect by Scarlett Johansson) spends much of the film cruising the streets in a van, flashing enticing glances at her variously confused and naive quarry, in a way that’s strangely akin to a night on the pull. You hit the pub or a bar or whatever, and then hover around in an emotionless bubble, picking faces out of the crowd completely unaware of their personality or emotional state – it’s a culture driven by lust. As our fur-coated extraterrestrial engages her unassuming victims in interrogations disguised as banal small talk (“Are you walking home?… Do you live alone?”), it’s hard not to draw comparison with the creepier end of the night club predators you see prowling the streets every Friday.
Then again, Johansson’s character isn’t as much a predator as a scavenger, content to feed on the dregs of masculinity rather than chasing after Grade A beef-cake. She only cares about making ends meet (and indeed, meat), replacing the need for any and all emotional ties with a ravishing smile and a compliment about her latest john’s appearance. This is the world that Glazer presents us with – a world where Johansson’s victims wear a look of triumph even as they are swallowed into the floor, a world where lust and wounded sexuality take the place of emotional expression.
This central emotional vacuum makes the pitiful state of the people around this interstellar foreigner all the starker. When Johansson picks up a man stricken with crippling elephantiasis and asks him whether he has any friends or a girlfriend, she is trying to scope how much he’ll be missed and the ease with which she can manipulate him – but to the audience, the sight of a pitiful man revealing his complete loneliness in the world is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s a cold and clinical film filled with pitiful people – everyone Johansson picks up is an alien in their own way, from a Czech man living in a tent to an electrician who walks home along the motorway. She drags these wounded men from the edge of their world and into the center of hers – there’s always a trade to be plied in making the unwanted feel wanted, even if it is just eating them.
Glazer’s vision is phenomenally ambitious, and he packs the film with countless visual ticks ranging from the haunting to the straight up bizarre, all of it accompanied by a soundtrack that screeches and caterwauls its way into your skull and never lets you settle. His directorial career proper actually started out in music videos (he’s worked with everyone from Radiohead to Jamiroquai), and Under the Skin‘s visuals certainly have a lot more in common with the video for Street Spirit than it does with Sexy Beast. It’s an exercise in ambiance, with dialogue kept to a bare minimum amidst a sprawl of weird and terrifying imagery, the kind of film that would be ponderous and pretentious if it weren’t so bloody good. These astounding atmospherics (shot with largely static cameras that refuse to look away) reach a fever pitch in the film’s distressing set-piece – a haunting and terrifying scene on a windswept beach that chilled me to my very core.
Under The Skin is absolutely astonishing and excruciatingly unnerving. Glazer has picked up right where he left off as one of modern cinema’s brightest and most visionary minds, while Johansson’s presence will have put the film on the radars of many who otherwise wouldn’t have paid it a second thought. This is ballsy and mesmerizing filmmaking that looks set to polarize audiences for years to come. Plenty of people won’t like it, but it’s the divisive movies that tend to endure all the stronger.
Under The Skin is a beautiful, confusing, unnerving sprawl of a film that all but begs for multiple viewings.