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.