Mysterious skin

Scarlett Johansson makes this atmospheric sci-fi a richly unusual experience

Like a trippy delirium, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien siren who preys on men, sucks you into its black bile and keeps you transfixed. This is a 103-minute fevered dream, a delicious trance, and an eccentric commentary on humans’ skin-deep fascination with skin. It’s a fortunate accident that this art house sci-fi is getting a release in Bangkok, thanks not to the movie’s audacious aesthetics, but to the fact that it features a semi-nude Johansson — for marketers, that’s enough of a hook to cash in.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in Under The Skin.

So viewers, be patient. Under The Skin is built on the backbone of a noir thriller — an extraterrestrial femme fatale luring horny men into her trap — but the film is less interested in telling that story than in conjuring up a zonked-out mood, a damp daze under the Scottish skies with a centre on Johansson’s voluptuous, inscrutable presence. The film has very little dialogue, and the narrative is oblique rather than slow; trusting that the audience can put together pieces that are sometimes thrown out without explanation. This is cinema not as storytelling but as experience, and a febrile, ecstatic one at that.

The opening sequence — and some others that follow — has the cubist quality of gallery art: close-up shots of unidentifiable objects, or liquid, or machines, that eventually morph into full-screen. Looks could kill is probably what is programmed into the being played by Johansson, dispatched to Earth, or precisely to Scotland, on some kind of mission that we’ll never fully understand. Her job, however, is to drive around a wet rural town in a big van and pick up men who’re seduced by her plump lips and short skirts.

She (every character in the film has no name) then takes her prey to a sci-fi torture chamber with a black pool of poison — a cross between Goya paintings and modernist horror — where she’ll strip off her clothes and lead them to their macabre demise. The story takes a turn when the alien seductress picks up her unlikeliest target, a disfigured man who confesses to never having been with a woman before. What I’ve described is a crude summary of what Under The Skin is anyway. Director Glazer — known for his exhilarating music videos, commercials and the films Sexy Beast and Fur — is a stylist who’s fascinated by both the fabulous and the twisted, and his achievement here is to melt the conventional narrative structure into a jellylike substance, tangible but slippery, graspable but elusive. His eyes are all on the squalid splendour of Scotland, especially its forlorn nature, and in the womblike elasticity of the story and its setting, he puts Johansson, first as a blank slate but gradually (and magically) as something resembling a person.

This is the second time this year that Johansson has starred as a non-human — the first was her voice in Spike Jonze’s Her. Her portrayal in Under The Skin is a tricky task, for her alien is on a journey of self-discovery, physically and metaphysically, so it’s to her credit that the movie manages to become much more than a stylish exercise. It’s also a genuine drama that says a few things about sexism and superficiality. Like most good films, this one demands something from you, not just you from it. Some may run for cover, or for the exit, but those who stick around this strange and rich film will be sent out floating.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist