Under the Skin

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“Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that.”

“This is a blouse and a skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t wear that body.”

That exchange came from William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan’s classic 1981 noir Body Heat, on a sweltering first meeting between Hurt’s hapless schmuck and Turner’s ace femme fatale.  For just a few moments they sat together in a South Florida roadside bar, but just one look at her in that slit up white number—and down the rabbit hole he went.  I was reminded of Turner’s erotic potency while watching Jonathan Glazer’s dark-pearled tone poem, Under the Skin, an alternately fascinating and frustrating picture, an unequivocal triumph of mood and tone and an unfortunate letdown as a narrative.

We know this much—Scarlett Johansson is an alien life form arriving on Earth (Scotland, to be exact, a great choice since the actress seems very foreign to the environment) to take the body of a very sexy young drifter.  After assuming this visage, she steals a van and begins cruising for sex with unsuspecting men, most of them loners entranced by her come-hither small talk.  She stalks them, pulls over to the curb, entices them and once they become aroused, lures them into what looks like a petroleum vat of quicksand, a netherworld where they can be harvested. Or something like that. How and to what end are never clear. It’s just what she does.

Later, there’s an unexpected transformative episode involving a disfigured mark where she begins to, perhaps, really feel what it’s like to be human beneath her disguise and appears to go rogue from her mission, while a cabal of fellow male aliens furiously race on motorcycles to find her.

When she holes up in a woodsy cottage and goes strangely silent, the pace slogs and the film becomes an endurance test.  Yet Glazer manages a doozy of a final sequence (which I wouldn’t dream of describing) that is audacious, frightening, beautiful and sad.  

That’s about it for the “story” of Under the Skin, an exercise in minimalism that unsettles us with a aura of dread piqued with intermittent shocks (there’s a shot where two of her victims have an exchange that is truly eerie).

The film feels freewheeling, experimental and low-budget, the reality-capturing camera discretely following Johansson around action Scottish locations—streets, a mall, etc.—and allowing unsuspecting non-actors to drift in and out of its purview, including some of the men she propositions, who according to Glazer were not actors (and apparently also had never seen The Avengers). 

Glazer, the talented director of the cult classic Sexy Beast (2000), featuring revered turns from Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone, and the striking Nicole Kidman drama Birth (2004), does little to enliven Johansson’s otherworldly vixen; the actress isn’t given much to work with. Consequently, the picture feels lifeless, somber and often downbeat. 

As the vacuous predator scouring the Scottish byways for trade, Johansson is, for a time, mesmeric—a pallid, ample curved doll in acid wash, mussed ebony mop top and bee-stung ruby reds.  She says little yet speaks gales of erotica to the men caught in her sex waves.

There is much to admire in Under the Skin, but after the hour point a sense of restlessness sets in, the seductions turn schematic and the film reveals little in terms of narrative, a deliberate enigma more oblique than observant.

Above all, Under the Skin is a triumph of tone.  What’s missing is substance to complement the unnerving atmosphere.  For awhile, we are so entranced that we barely notice.  Eventually it’s revealed that empress Scarlett has no clothes, literally. 

And those calling flawed Under the Skin “Kubrickian” are really pushing it.

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