There seems to be two distinct discussions that have sprung out of Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast) new film, Under the Skin. They’re discussions that are generally at odds with each other when it comes to their ability at helping you figure out how audiences are likely to respond to the film too. The first thing people seem to feel the need to address after coming out of a screening of Under the Skin is that it’s very avant-garde, the kind of movie that sweeps you up in a mood and dazzles you with visual images, but that doesn’t tell a traditional story and that doesn’t go out of its way to explain to you what’s happening on the screen or why. This makes it feel like Under the Skin is only going to be for hardcore film buffs. The second issue people seem to address after seeing the movie is that its star, Scarlett Johansson, does a handful of nude scenes in it. This makes it feel like Under the Skin is going to be for everyone. In my experience though, the impenetrable nature of the story probably overpowers man’s innate urge to ogle.
That’s not to say that the film is so abstract that it’s impossible to read any sort of sense or meaning into it though, just that the film is challenging enough and slow-paced enough that only those especially comfortable with art cinema are likely to get much enjoyment out of it. Anyone seeing it solely because they’re a fan of Johansson’s sexy onscreen persona is likely to be left out in the dark, but for more adventurous audiences there is light to be found. The story, or what of it exists, sees the actress playing an otherworldly creature of some sort who seems to have been tasked with wearing a (remarkable) human form, driving around Scotland in a van, and seducing lonely men into traveling with her back to her place, which ends up being an inky black void where they soon find themselves naked, trapped, and eventually consumed from the inside out. The bulk of the film consists, simply, of this same thing happening to a series of hapless men.
The reason the film works despite it’s being slow, difficult to follow, and a little repetitive, is that, despite the fact that you never know exactly who Johansson’s character or the mysterious men on motorcycles she works with her are, or what they’re up to, she still goes through something of an engaging character arc. While she starts off in a state where she seems to be experiencing humanity and the Earth for the first time, and has little sympathy or concern for either, over the course of the film she softens, and once she lets her guard down and tries to experience this life more fully some real stakes and vulnerability creep into the story. Johansson is really good in the role too, still managing to engage even while she’s stripped herself of nearly every trace of her inherent personality and charm. And even though you won’t understand everything that happens in the film, you’ll still walk away from it with thoughts about power struggles between the genders, and thoughts about our bodies, and what aspects of them we take for granted and what aspects we overly obsess upon, running through your head. Plus, you can’t help but get lost in the film’s gorgeous visuals and fascinating score, so long as you’re willing to let the filmmaking do its work and you don’t demand that it move at a different pace or give you more answers than it’s willing to. Take the ride, put your trust in Glazer and Johansson, and chances are you’ll like what you see.