Review: “Under The Skin”

Would you pay to see a film that was called an allegory about the sexual repression of women in a male-dominated culture? I wouldn’t. But if, instead, you were shown a near naked Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature luring men to death during sex, you just might. Welcome to a growing genre I will call “Feminist Sci-Fi”. This flawed but bracingly original example, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is probably the first near masterpiece in the category.

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Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

A long wordless opening suggests an alien landing on earth. We first see her being given the clothing of a dead woman by a man who rides a motorcycle. Whether he is her helper, or her alien leader, is never explained. Looking like a tart, she drives her car aimlessly about Scotland, picking up men who see the promise of fast, zipless sex. Once indoors, she disrobes slowly, seductively, and the men do likewise. Suddenly, without even a touch between them, the men disappear into blackness. This startling image is the most disturbing in the film. The pattern is broken when she picks up a man with a deformed face. They talk in the car, in the only sustained dialogue in the film. They touch and something – empathy? – stirs within her. This mysterious feeling disrupts her mission, and she lets him escape. The “creature” is thus shown to have human vulnerability. Soon, once a man treats her with simple kindness, without carnal overture, she is drawn to him, and they have intercourse. Startled and confused, she sits bolt upright in bed, grabbing a lamp to examine her own genitals. This new awareness in her sets up the film’s violent conclusion. She now feels that her sexuality is real, and is something she must protect. For the first time, she resists a man, and her human cover is torn in the struggle. The man, suddenly terrified, reacts to the woman’s true sexual nature as if she is an invading alien that must be destroyed. Hazard shows confidence in telling the story almost entirely with gesture and wordless action. There is little dialogue, with much in an impenetrable Scottish dialect. The pace is often agonizingly slow, with an overuse of static shots held for no apparent reason. Johansson’s impassive face is the main narrative device, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. She is shown watching everything around her, without emotion. Of course, this would be what an alien does; but, with no recurrence of these images later in the film, you suspect it’s just padding. The score, by Mica Levi, is the single best element in the film; a constant, droning fury. At times, it seems the film is edited to the music, instead of the other way round. In a brunette wig, Johansson holds you with her dark, solemn beauty until the film’s provocative climax.

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