Published Sep 16, 2013Jonathan Glazer (a director with only three feature films under his belt in 13 years) has a thematic preoccupation with trust, deconstructing the cultural and psychological signifiers that allow humans to feel at ease with one another, whether stemming from sheer superficiality or embedded emotional triggers.
Sexy Beast and the distinguishably more divisive Birth had an unspoken, alien quality to them amidst protracted, discomforting shots intended to implicate, or force, self-awareness about the passive act of viewing or objectifying. They revelled in challenging, but gorgeous imagery while manipulating our perceptions of trust in an author, playing with our expectations of character motivation based upon traditionalist, culturally ubiquitous thinking.
This is why his very loose adaptation of the Michel Faber novel Under the Skin makes complete sense by making no literal sense at all. It opens with abstract, haloed imagery looming over a slightly askew, distressing soundscape. A benign, circular, ostensibly plastic object beckons and is slowly filled by a projectile or phallus, completing a sphere. This works as an ode to the gender politics, as simplified and instinctual as they may be, about to unfold in the film, before shifting to the image of an eyeball, suggesting the construction of a gaze — essentially our gaze, as manufactured by an impending, simplistic, yet abstract narrative that relies on our historical assumptions about superficial images to succeed.
That Scarlett Johansson plays Laura (an alien seductress driving around the Scotland countryside trying to lure men into her van) isn't just a coincidence. This alien, initially seen nude in a clinical, monochromatic environment stealing the clothes of a dead girl, is, despite whatever unexplained motivations have her seeking out stray men, an empty vessel. She's undeniably beautiful, representing the ideal human performative object, ostensibly being the epitome of cultural acquisition. Obtaining or acquiring her, regardless of what might be under her skin, is an unspoken ultimate male achievement within the context of the film and amidst populist culture.
Her ability to approach and obtain stray men without revealing an ounce of information about herself — she asks them only enough questions to determine if anyone will notice their immediate disappearance — isn't at all surprising, but it does open an interesting dialogue about an exploitable weakness within the human framework. This alien, whose background and motivations are never fully explained, is able to gradually weed out and acquire a number of bodies — a repetitive visual trajectory that doesn't always further or aid the artistic intentions — while her male alien counterpart fills in the gaps (finding replacements or killing men that are rejected) with violence and aggression.
Visually, her act of seduction —one that finds her luring men into a stark, expansive, reflective black room — is the sort of image that lingers in cinematic history. Shot clinically, making Laura seem like a praying mantis, it utilizes a simple synthetic beat to make ritualistic the striptease she uses to entrance these various males into removing their clothes and walk willingly into a black, jelly-like void. Why she does this is eventually implied, relating back to the titular skin, but Glazer isn't interested in an alien invasion as much as human dynamics and impulses.
Before Laura eventually malfunctions and allows herself to embrace the passive objectification of the men around her, she blankly, possibly quizzically (although this is a mere projection), stares at curiosities that we have implicit emotional attachment to. A particularly compelling and unsentimental sequence on a beach finds her attempts to lure an Eastern European diver into her van interrupted by a woman swimming into the ocean to fetch her dog. Her death and the helplessness of her infant sitting on the beach crying are of no interest to Laura. She acknowledges that the baby is there, but is indifferent to whether or not it'll survive, being preoccupied with her mission.
Glazer's refusal to sentimentalize the images — only a close-up of a severely deformed man pinching his hand to see if Laura's interest in him is real evades this cold aesthetic — makes audience reaction to such a moment an act of analysis in itself. Similarly, his play on gender politics — showing the adverse side of male behaviour when they aren't given what they desire — has deceptive simplicity that speaks volumes despite existing within a film that has about ten lines of dialogue.
Though this deconstruction of desire and human instinct in relation to social conditioning is fascinating, the biggest surprise about Under the Skin is ultimately how weirdly slight it seems. Some of the imagery is impossible to escape, and is of the sort of that remains in the subconscious days after viewing, but there's something facile about the juxtaposition of an alien as predator and then prey that's a bit obvious and banal, having only the heft of Glazer's visual acuity and witty audience critique to carry it through.
In fact, if it weren't for the stylization and the meticulous composition, this partially ironic deconstruction of desiring surface attributes and projecting idealized character traits onto them could have been laughable. It even borders on this occasionally once it's clear that the surface narrative isn't going to tackle anything beyond gender relations and fledgling survivalist scepticism in those traditionally rejected by society.
Oddly, the impeccable look of Under the Skin — a film about the artifice of such things — makes us want it to be something more. That it's cinematic porn for the aesthete makes it seem greater than it is, which, interestingly enough, works in Glazer's favour by reiterating his thesis. Whether this was intentional is debatable.