Arthouse films aren’t for everyone. They’re often vague, confusing, and come across as being strange and different for the sake of being strange and different. Now, I’m by no means an authority on arthouse and experimental cinema, but I’ve been through the surrealist rodeo a couple times. Being someone who really likes the visual and technical elements of film, I can enjoy certain art films for their imagery and cinematography, even if their #2deep4me messages fly over my head.
Under the Skin is a sci-fi horror film directed by Jonathan Glazer. While definitely an art film, Under the Skin’s plot is easier to digest than something like, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. That being said, it doesn’t reduce how evocative and mesmerizing the imagery is in this movie, nor does it make some of the scenes any less uncomfortable to sit through. The movie follows a simple premise. An alien woman (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to Earth to process men for an unknown reason. In order to capture the men she needs, she decides to pose as a beautiful young woman and seduce them. As she ensnares prey after prey, her time among humans begins to rub off on her and she becomes curious about the different experiences and emotions humans go through. See? That wasn’t so hard.
While summing up the movie in a couple sentences makes it sound like John Carpenter’s Starman (I think I mention him a little too much in this blog, but I digress), but in terms of tone and style, Under the Skin couldn’t be more different. Other than a couple scenes, this movie is almost devoid of colour. Not that it’s shot in black and white (honestly some scenes could have been and I wouldn’t have been able to tell), but that every shot is so unsaturated that any colours on screen are stamped out and muted. Shots linger for a little too long. There is barely any dialogue. No character is ever given any names. All these small things that by themselves might make a movie endearingly quirky come together and compound into a truly unsettling experience. To say Under the Skin was uncomfortable to sit through was an understatement. There are many shots in this movie of people on the streets, performing mundane tasks and living out their usual lives that are so voyeuristic that it feels wrong. Like you’re looking at a hidden camera feed following real people around. Even the interactions between the alien woman and her victims are unsettling. Throughout the movie I was dumbfounded on how well these guys were acting. Only afterwards did I find out that the reason everything in this feels too real is because it is. A majority of this film was filmed without the knowledge of the subjects, and only afterwards were they approached and told that they have the chance to appear in a movie. It feels like you’re invading their privacy and snooping and to me that feels wrong. After all that being said, the scenes of people on the streets are easily the least disturbing parts of this movie.
As the alien woman seduces men, she “brings them back to her place” – something in Western culture that signifies that they’re going to have a sexual encounter – one of many locations that her species uses for whatever procedures they perform on humans. While this movie requires your suspension of disbelief about how she seduces men so thoroughly (is it a spell? Mind control? Do men just get so infatuated by a nude Scarlett Johansson that they don’t notice anything else? Actually, that last one makes a bit of sense…) the seduction and capturing scenes are by far the most entrancing. If you have any interest in watching Under the Skin, I’m sure you’ve seen the famous still image from the film, the pitch black room with Scarlett Johansson standing on a what appears to be the surface of a pool of dead still liquid with a man half submerged in front of her. Every time one of these scenes would show up, I found myself literally at the edge of my seat, and once I finished the movie, I realized I hadn’t even glanced downwards to take any notes during those sequences. The amazing visuals paired with the legitimately creepy soundtrack were a one-two punch to the mind. In this day and age with a scene so dark and empty and music so ambient and dissonant, we expect a spooky scary face to come flashing into frame to scare us out of our seats. This movie has zero jump scares, but these scenes had me white-knuckling it from front to back like nothing else.
So I guess I should touch on the real subject matter of this film. Obviously because it’s a film made for the sake of art, it was made with the intention that different people will have different interpretations of it. I’ve heard some people think it’s a statement on how modern culture sensationalizes beauty and how superficial we’ve become when it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and I’ve heard some cases where people interpreted it as a depiction of rape culture with the genders reversed. Me personally, I side more with the former interpretation. At the beginning of the movie we see the alien woman observing humans in the makeup section of a department store, buying products to beautify themselves. As she picks up her first victim (after applying makeup to herself, to try and conform to the hoard of women she saw slathering makeup on each other) she asks if he finds her attractive, and seems genuinely confused and intrigued that he says he does. To her completely alien perspective, how attractive somebody is appears to be their defining characteristic. Every time the audience is subjected to the black room (the only thing we see that belongs to the aliens), there’s a distinct lack of beauty. There is nothing to look at. You couldn’t even call it minimalist. The is so little to see, so little going on visually that it seems as though the aliens’ mentality is beyond function over form. It is all function, no form.
Only once the alien woman meets the deformed man do we see this point driven home even further. Being a creature that has no concept of physical attractiveness, she pays no attention to the man’s deformities and instead genuinely converses with him. Only after her interactions with him does she realize that humans are more nuanced than she once thought. Once the end of the film comes around (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it), we get a nearly spelled out on screen (albeit spelled out in a gruesome, disturbing way) visualization of the phrase “beauty is only skin deep”.
So. Under the Skin. Did I like it? Yes, definitely. Will I watch it again sometime? Yes, probably. Would I recommend it to people? Well, that depends. You need to know what you’re getting in to before you watch this movie. Sure it’s got sci-fi and horror vibes all throughout it, but this isn’t Alien or Event Horizon. This movie is slow and methodical. Under the Skin’s script could very well fit on two or three pages, so be prepared for a very visuals-heavy experience. The cinematography is beautiful and sucks you in entirely. I still have no idea how on Earth they managed to pull off the shots in the black room. Scenes like that, the opening sequence, and the post-titlecard scene are like something out of Jorodrowsky and Moebius’ The Incal. This film is just a touch over an hour and forty-five minutes, so be prepared to strap yourselves in for a little while. This movie leaves a lot for you to figure out and interpret on your own, so make sure you’re in the mood for something more pensive. If you have seen Under the Skin, what was your interpretation of it?