Under the Skin is more interesting than it first seems

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


undertheskinUnder the Skin
July 3-6
RPL Film Theatre
3.5 out of 5

It’s not easy to connect with Under the Skin —in fact, when I saw the film at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, I didn’t care for it at all. It’s slow, proudly detached, and, to me, seemed like it couldn’t care less about its audience. To say it  came across as pretentious would be an understatement.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this review: the film stuck with me.

There are scenes in Under the Skin so ruthless and artfully constructed, they become engraved in one’s mind. It’s no wonder director Jonathan Glazer is being compared to Stanley Kubrick: nobody has created as much iconic imagery as the director of The Shining and 2001. Glazer, meanwhile, crafted two of the best music videos in history (Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”), and now is methodically moving his craft to the big screen.

Under the Skin follows Laura (the best performance of Scarlett Johansson’s career), the face of an alien operation whose mission is to pick up strangers, draw them into a nondescript cottage and strip them of their essence. Glazer’s camera captures a number of non-actors being lured into Scarlett’s clutches (can you blame them?). The gimmicky stunt gives the picture a coat of verisimilitude and makes it a bit more distressing.

As she decimates the male population of Scotland one horny sucker at a time, Laura develops a set of rules: her victims must be single, with no family or someone waiting for them. While she starts out like an empty vessel, she learns about her surroundings at high speed, developing moral values using the very limited information at hand.

Soon enough, the code isn’t enough to excuse her actions and Laura just can’t bring herself to continue. Kudos to Johansson for making the entire process seem plausible.

Even though Under the Skin qualifies as science fiction, the film looks purposefully low-fi, which makes the emotionally-loaded special effects quite striking when they happen. There is a pervading sense of fatalism through the entire film. Everything feels menacing: predators like Laura could become victims in the very next scene. Given Jonathan Glazer’s résumé (Sexy Beast, Birth), the tone is hardly surprising: the filmmaker doesn’t think much of humanity, but finds its motivations endlessly intriguing.

Without spoiling anything, the ending is very dark and harkens back to the film’s main theme: the disassociation between a woman as a person and an object of desire. We watch Laura bloom as an individual, but she’s treated as a means to an end throughout the movie. Glazer drives the point home, forcing the audience to rethink its own issues with the subject.

Sure, at times Under the Skin often feels like bitter medicine, but it’s clearly good for you. One suggestion: a hearty cup of coffee in advance pays off greatly.