Jonathan Glazer is a hard filmmaker to like. His films (Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004)) are impersonal, and yet highly personal. His characters are aloof, yet representative of us all. The style is detached, glacial almost, and the imagery haunting yet beautiful. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s style, there are some who will just not understand the appeal. For anyone who looks up the reviews of Under the Skin, you are liable to find lovers and haters split right down the center with no middle ground.
But the film is breathtaking in its own horrifying way, symbolic of the human race’s struggle for connection, love and joy. For those who can stomach the sheer audacity of its themes, the slowness of its pace and the subliminal character motivations, it is a cinematic experience so different from contemporary films.
Scarlett Johansson is an alien being who wanders the Scottish country, luring men to a strange house of blackness where they are… it is never made especially clear what it is that happens to them, but suffice it to say, it isn’t good, and they are never seen again.
As the alien wanders through her environment, she starts to gain empathy for the humans around her. She tries to make a connection, acting more and more like us, but something always keeps her detached from ever being truly part of humanity. And mankind’s own brutality pushes her away.
There is very scant dialogue throughout the film with several of the scenes random meetings with strangers on the street the crew filmed. The film is really more about physical interactions, the things that draw us towards one another. Glazer is more concerned with mood and physical space to tell his story, many scenes utilizing the facial expressions of Johansson alone to convey the action.
What is beauty? The film grapples with this question during the alien’s journey. Is it what we normally think of as beautiful (love, friendship, birth, food)? Or is the dark underbelly of the world (vulgarity, death, ugliness) beautiful as well? What makes us human is not just our goodness, it is also our evil, and both are at once majestic and awful the film seems to suggest. The world is monotone through the alien’s eyes, and she learns how we choose what to validate and admonish. Her loneliness and inability to truly fit in reflect each of our sensibilities.
Under the Skin is indeed hard to sit through and perhaps too thought-provoking for its own good, but for those with the patience and temperament to handle it, it is a rewarding cinematic experience.