It doesn’t happen often that you can write a title with pure Scarlett Johansson link bait, yet keep a clear conscience.
Unless you’ve read the original novel, you won’t know until late in the film that Under The Skin is the story of an alien in human form. Still, the filmmakers reveal in interviews: “part road movie, part science fiction, part real, it’s a film about seeing our world through alien eyes.”
Spoilers Would Have Helped
In fairness, I would have enjoyed the film a whole lot better if I knew this before watching. Perhaps this confusion about what to reveal and what not lies at the basis of director Jonathan Glazer’s mixed success at the box office.
Glazer is what you would call a cult director. He has a smallish, dedicated following. His debut Sexy Beast grossed only about $10m worldwide, but it established him as a force in the indie world. For Birth, his next, he had $20m to play with (most of which I suspect went to Nicole Kidman’s fee).
That movie barely made its money back, and it took Glazer nine years before getting another picture into the theatres. With a production budget of $13m and a reported worldwide gross of just over $5m for Under The Skin, one wonders if he’ll be helming again any time soon.
Under Your Skin
Still, I’ll always be interested in Glazer’s movies. They are eerie, unnerving. They linger in your memory, and get under your skin. To me, this is a sign of relevant cinema.
In this picture, Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who roams Scotland seducing men, then killing them. This ritual repeats itself over and over, until she too meets a harrowing end. The scenes of seduction and sex are disorienting and alienating, to an extent that we can’t really tell what is going on, how and why.
Scarlett Johansson’s Skin
It is one of those stories I kept watching out of intrigue (contrary, of course, to those who confessed to keep watching for the substantial amount of Scarlett in the flesh). Where could this all possibly lead?
When any answer is ultimately lacking, you are left with the choice to accept this as art – or dismiss it as nonsense. I’m divided. In my view, great cinema doesn’t leave the viewers in the dark, with an attitude of “Didn’t you get it?”
Or was this film intended for readers of the original novel only? Not a convincing business model, if you ask me.
Glazer’s Idea Of Beach Fun
That said, Under The Skin has one scene that represents Glazer’s style of filmmaking.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not sure whether it will draw you in, or turn you off completely (I guess this may also depend on your appetite for Scarlett Johansson). But it may haunt you forever… if you’re a human.
The scene sits about twenty-five minutes in, and is set at the beach during wild weather. Our heroine watches the drowning of a couple in the waves while their infant child is left alone, crying. As a parent, I found this the most heart-wrenching scene ever.
But it’s not over yet.
This is only the setup – being a long one – for what is to come. Unmoved, the woman observes how a swimmer in wetsuit fails to rescue the couple, and washes up on the beach, exhausted.
What happens next, is profoundly disturbing, and if you’re in need of something to cheer you up, perhaps leave this one for later.
Or pour yourself something strong.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
Subscribe to our YouTube Channel!
13 thoughts on “Scarlett Johansson Naked [Under The Skin Undressed]”
This movie that got heaps of attention from critics, most of it good. I’m amazed so few people saw it: I guess that shows the limitations of publicity. I didn’t like it much but I’ve never seen why people wow over Johansson and the circumstances (a long plane flight) weren’t conducive. I thought it needed more of that weird under-the-oil stuff, and the oiled prisoners trying to escape or something rather than just being helpless.
I think the subtext of what you are saying confirms that we expect a certain amount of story for our money in a feature, and in this one it simply wasn’t there.
I suspect what it’s trying to achieve is no story to speak of but stick around for the visuals. The same way people will watch the Tour de France for the lovely mountain scenery and quaint villages even though there’s four hours between tactical events. I think for me the biggest problem is that the alien’s objective (seduce man, store man) is so easy she may as well be ordering a burger – no opposition, no real conflict, passive helpless characters. There might be an interesting comparison here with Species, where the alien has no trouble seducing men but has a lot of trouble finding one with the specific genes she wants.
L-o-v-e-d “Sexy Beast”. Ben Kingsley portrayed a riveting, daimonic force of nature.
Hated “Under the Skin”. Scarlett Johansson’s acting (or lack of) could not transcend the dismal and thin narrative line of the story.
” In my view, great cinema doesn’t leave the viewers in the dark, with an attitude of “Didn’t you get it?” So there goes Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and much of Fellini, then.
Dr W, I think there is a big difference in provoking a viewer to think and wonder about what the theme or message might be versus being wanky-obscure for the alleged sake of “art”. I have much more respect for a writer or filmmaker who tackles a complexed issue with clear ideas that are not black and white than I do with a self-indulgent artist with pretentions of philosophical insight that makes a work deliberately obscure to cover up lack of substantive thematic content. Off the top of my head, the best immediate examples I can think of are “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” for case type 1, versus “9 Songs” for type 2. [It would take me too long to recall clearer examples.]
In fact, Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and even ‘2001’ could be argued to be (mostly) cases of type 2. As both films are rather long for what little underlying real content or message they have.
2001 is a great example of what you allude to! I for one don’t mind being left with some mystery in a story. Thinking for oneself is also part of the dynamic of a story I believe.
I went to 2001 on a date and during the dinner beforehand decided to end it. Then at the end of the movie, which she was seeing for the first time, she gave me the best and clearest theory for what was going on at the end that I’d ever heard. [When Hal is being shut down they take a little piece of his brain at a time. He shows almost exactly the same signs as Dave, including regression to a natal state. The aliens are doing to Dave what he did to Hal. Because he i.e. humans are dangerous? There was more detail.] It was like she’d opened up and showed me this wonderful mind she’d been hiding and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. A week later she dumped me.
Wow – What a story. Fabulous. Minus the ending.
Tomorrow I’m talking to a class of 11-year olds about the Fermi Paradox.
I am now wondering if I should tell them your story. :-P
I used to love most of the work of Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Fellini.
I got the “Dottore”s autograph and that of his wife in 1993, shortly before they died. I carried it with me for years. That’s how much I adored his cinema.
The times have changed though, and to me much of what these guys created is now dated. Not everything, though. And you will know which masterpieces have survived the times.
Also, note that some of the great arthouse filmmakers of the past started their careers with successful mainstream cinema. Ever seen Fellini’s Lo Sceicco Bianco?
So I would never in a million years put the name of Glazer (how made three relatively poorly received movies) on par with the four names above, who together are responsible for dozens of movies that defined the European cinema of their time.
I can understand why people dislike this film, but I think it is an astonishing piece of cinema. Is the plot thin? I thought there was a lot going on. You have to pay attention and pick up the clues though. The title is literal and metaphoric. It is unashamed “arthouse”. Buy that I mean it requires a perhaps unexpected level of engagement. That fact that it stars an Avenger probably doesn’t help prepare people for that.
A sci-fi film with Scarlett J as an alien! Cool! Uh..no. It is science fiction film from the branch of the genre that produced 2001, Stalker, Solaris, Alphaville rather than the branch that produced Star Wars, Transformers etc. I’m not dismissing Star Wars, I love pure genre . But I also love obscure, “wanky” arthouse. How does one diminish the other? For me, it’s a tragedy that arthouse cinemas (the Valhalla’s etc) no longer exist. It was those decrepit palaces that allowed filmmakers like David Lynch, John Waters, Jodoworsky etc. to have careers. Where would you see fantastic “wanky rubbish” like Eraserhead, El Topo, Female Trouble today? Maybe you don’t want to? Consider that maybe reason the 70s produced such great cinema is because there was an audience with more an adventurous eye?
I understand this style of film is not for everybody. But as I filmmaker, I try to feed my brain the most diverse diet possible.
Back on track, sorry!
“Under The Skin” mines two recurring themes of science fiction – what it means to be human, and the return to Eden.
The opening “birth” sequence lets you know what you’re in for – it’s a reverse of the “trippy” light sequence at the end of 2001. In fact, the whole film is almost the inverse of 2001 – from light (Star Child) to barbarity.
The majority of the film examines what it means to human, or more specifically (and terrifyingly for the alien) , what it means to be female. This is the same theme tackled by Ex-Machina. But where that film provides a standard “genre” answer, the conclusion “Under The Skin” reaches is far more intellgent and unnerving. After her encounter with the disfigured man, Scarlett starts to become human (under the skin). She is unable to continue with her task and attempts to return to Eden – she retreats into nature. And what does find there? The horrifying, true nature of man.
There is a lot more going on in the film – such as the beach scene, the sequence where she has a brief respite in a kind strangers house etc. All these sequences have meaning, they all support and enrich the film’s central themes.
Everything you need to understand is there. And you most definitly have to be in the right mood! I would also add that it is one of those films that is best seen in the cinema. Not because of the big screen, but because there are no distractions, no pausing when you’re bored. You are forced to look and find meaning.
If you liked Under The Skin, I recommend you check out Hard To Be A God.
I should add that even I find the films of Pedro Costa unwatchable.