Under the Skin starts you out feeling absorbed but disoriented, and basically never relieves you of that feeling. Imagine if David Lynch made a movie with Stanley Kubrick’s disciplined aesthetic but didn’t care as much about entertaining his audience, and you’re close to approaching Under the Skin’s odd, languid greatness. Some films beg to be enhanced by mind-altering substances. With this one, the movie is the drug.
Jonathan Glazer directs the screenplay written by Walter Campbell, adapted from a novel by Michel Faber. Glazer’s other films include Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). He’s also the man behind the Radiohead music videos for “Street Spirit” and “Karma Police.” Think back to “Karma Police” and that haunted stretch of highway, where mysterious figures emerge out of the darkness into color and then get set on fire. That’s the caliber of mood and imagery you can expect here, but feature-length and with talking.
Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien named Laura who’s fallen to earth in Glasgow, Scotland, in the skintight suit of a perfect human female. She’s on a mission to seduce and ensnare men she encounters while cruising around in her car, and there’s the plot for you in its entirety. There’s hardly any dialogue, but the disjointed visuals combined with Mica Levi’s devastating score fills these scenes with an unmistakable dread, and it’s a feeling that persists long after you leave the theater.
I can’t level enough praise for Johansson’s performance. Many filmmakers have lingered on Johansson’s curves—and not just men. Remember the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation? But this is the first time she’s been so naked on camera. Big surprise, it’s thrilling, and maybe not what you think. She’s got some unexpected plump in her belly and thighs and her clothes and makeup are just slightly trashy. She’s beautiful in a real-life way that makes her sexuality a thousand times more palpable and dangerous. Beyond the physical, Johansson’s subtle performance manages to make sense of what is an otherwise inexplicable character. She’s a newborn adult who starts out confident and persistent in her mission and then becomes increasingly unhinged by the humanity burgeoning inside of her. I don’t mean to gush, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re not seduced and enamored by Laura then the film hasn’t done its job.
Her game is simple enough. She approaches men on the street and asks them for directions, then tries to lure them into her car and eventually back to her place for sex, murder, robbery? It’s unclear. The moment they step into her apartment, the film dispenses with narrative and turns into a visual poem. I’ve talked to some people who interpret the black, gooey abyss the men march slowly into as a literal event, which is certainly possible within the science fiction confines of the story, but it had not occurred to me. At the time I thought it was a metaphor for their death and now I have no idea.
Many of the scenes of men approaching the car to give Laura directions feature non-actors caught on hidden camera who didn’t find out they were in a movie until after the encounter. The effect is seamless and you’d never know it if I didn’t tell you.
Laura encounters one man in particular with a hideous, elephant-man like face. She invites him to caress her cheek and then her neck. He’s a shy, guarded person who probably knows the situation is too good to be true and elects to dive in anyway. His fate is unclear, but I suspect whatever happened to him might have been worth it.
Under the Skin is the most exhilarating and thought-provoking film to come out so far this year and I wholeheartedly recommend it, even though the mysteries bug me. I don’t understand what’s driving her to victimize these men, and I suspect avoiding the question is more a shallow convenience than an artistic choice. Still, I’m eager to be proven wrong with repeated viewings, or else just forgive the transgression and dive into the black pool.
Under the Skin continues at the Wilma.This article was updated on May 2 to reflect the correct date of the movie Birth.