Scarlett Johnasson’s most serious film to date is currently running its course in art house cinemas across the country. While some have criticised Under The Skin as being boring or not giving enough answers, I found it kept me on the edge of my seat and caused me to truly think once it was over.
If you already plan on seeing the film, please pause here and continue reading after you’ve seen it, as I do not want to sway your opinion. Also, there is a rape scene in the film, so do consider this your trigger warning. If you don’t plan on seeing it, let me tell you what it’s about, so the next time you’re having coffee with some intellectuals, you can pretend you saw a real horror film. Or maybe you’ll want to see it for yourself. The film is based on the book, by the same title, written by Michael Faber.
In Under The Skin, Johansson plays a strange woman who drives around a Scottish city in a cargo van all day pretending to be lost until she finds a man with few personal relationships, lures him back to her house which her sexuality, and traps him in a black murky pool where he slowly dies, after undressing to have sex with her.
Johansson’s character, who by the way, is unnamed in the film, seems to have an alien perspective of humanity. Throughout the film she is followed by a man on a motor cycle who disposes of evidence that the men Johansson’s character preys on even existed.
The turning point in the film comes when Johansson preys on a disfigured young man who has never even had a girlfriend. After trapping her in the black pool like the other men, a sense of reluctance and reflection overcomes her and she sets him free, only to be killed by the motor cyclist. Johansson, in the meantime, runs away, presumably to avoid being killed by the motor cyclist. Her identity as an alien being is perpetuated to the viewer when she chokes and spits out a bite of chocolate cake at a restaurant. She’s then taken in by a man she meets on a bus, but runs into the forrest after he tries to have sex with her. What follows is an attempted rape of Johansson’s character, who we then discover is not actually human. Or is she?
In reflecting on the film, I found a great deal of meaning in it; more than any film I’ve seen in several years (and I see about 100 films per year). On surface it’s a weird, if not horrific film, whose soundtrack and plot are almost on par with Kubrick’s The Shining. But dig deep and the film tells us what it means to be human. The first half of the film illustrates, specifically to men, what it’s like to be raped. The second half then shows how women are treated like objects by men in our society. The end, as well as a handful of moments throughout the film, show us how anyone can be made to feel alien and question their own identity.
If you did see the film and are still confused on the plot, Alex Jones actually explains it pretty well (despite seemingly like a Rush Limbaugh style commentator):
iO9’s Charlie Jane Anders blogged about her interview with director Jonathan Glazer. Apparently the public scenes of the film were really shot in public and secretly so that people wouldn’t notice. While the men Johansson did abduct were actors, there were interactions with men she didn’t abduct, and Glazer said those were surprisingly hard to get:
“Scarlett Johansson pulls up, [and] in you get… some were suspicious. Some were wary. Some were frightened. You see a whole range of complexity of how men do respond to that scenario.”
Anna Beddeley blogging for the UK site The Spectator makes a good point about how certain aspects of the film are hard to follow:
“In the film, Scarlett tricks the men back to her house on the promise of sex, and does a striptease while her victim unknowingly wades into a dark pool. It is very stylised and lovely to watch, but you have no idea what the point of it all is, apart from an excuse to see Scarlett’s bum. There is a fine line between ambiguity and laziness.”
I, however, disagree with Beddeley’s assertion that Glazer is being lazy with the ambiguity. As I stated earlier, I think the film is meant to make you think about the role women play in society. It is not meant to make you think about sexy aliens coming to eat you, which is why Glazer takes that detail out of the film.