Under the Skin: Deconstructing Scarlett

[Director Jonathan Glazer’s first new film in 10 years, Under the Skin, is a lot of different things, and the critical reactions to it have already been varied, to say the least. In anticipation of its select-cities and wide release openings in the next two weeks, Thought Pollution staffer Liam Green and contributor Shayna Murphy got together to talk about some of what makes the film so divisive and fascinating.]

So this is how Scarlett Johansson spent her summer break between Marvel movies. What do we think – boom or bust?

Liam: I’d go with “boom.” Like 2013’s Upstream Color, Under the Skin is reaching for a sort of transcendence, asking questions that are rarely asked even in today’s art films, let alone at the multiplex. Through the Trojan horse of a speculative fiction genre picture that veers back and forth between body horror, conspiracy thriller, erotica, kitchen-sink realism and avant-garde meditation, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in 10 years makes us wonder what it means to be alive – and more importantly, to truly live. To single out one thing right away, the opening sequence of alien light, oblique visuals and the sounds of our protagonist saying nonsense words as she learns how to speak human language is the best thing I’ve seen in a movie so far this year.

It’s not perfect. Glazer’s influences, which based on this story could range from Kubrick and Cronenberg to Ursula K. LeGuin and Alejandro Jodorowsky, are worn on the film’s sleeve. There were more than a few unintentional laughs at the screening I attended. And it’s possible to make devil’s-advocate arguments for this film as totally ludicrous. Ultimately, the power of Scarlett Johansson’s performance (which should but absolutely will not get awards attention) and Glazer’s directorial vision are great enough to outweigh the flaws, but I can see why they wouldn’t for everybody.

Shayna: It works. Regardless of the problems lurking in Under the Skin, ScarJo definitely deserves credit for putting her time away from the Avengers franchise to good use.

It’s clear right now that she’s really interested in exploring what desirability actually represents, and we’ve seen her subvert it to comedic and sometimes quite earnest ends in films like Don Jon and Her. In Don Jon, we’re supposed to have an exaggerated experience of her image – the film makes a point of fetishizing each dip and curve, and in doing so, invites the audience to drink all of her in too, to dizzying effect.

She’s meant to be an avatar, both within the film and for us, which makes it poignant when it’s later revealed that her character isn’t particularly sexual or even sensual. Juxtapose that with how she’s depicted in Her – as this disembodied yet omnipresent love interest yearning to be made real and whole – and we start to see a pattern emerging, which I think Under the Skin takes to its next radical extreme.

I do think it’s a bold move building any kind of film around her, and I’m not entirely sure Under the Skin works resting squarely on her shoulders. But, gotta give the girl props for trying. For Scarlett Johansson to pick a film like this, which doesn’t have a lot of commercial appeal and was highly immersive in the way it was shot, bodes well for the kind of work we can expect to see from her later on, once she’s done squeezing into that Black Widow get-up.

LET’S TALK ABOUT OBJECTIFICATION. Does the female and male nudity amount to that, or does it work based on its relevance to the story and its themes?

Liam: The only people objectifying Scarlett Johansson in relation to this movie are the male (and occasionally female) reviewers who keep coming up with breathless adjectives to describe her body. Her nudity, and that of the men she ensares (Glazer doesn’t observe a double standard, showing plenty of cock) is necessary to the story but any titillation it causes is incidental and reveals more about the reviewer or audience member than the film or director. If you want to blame a director for body objectification, try the otherwise pretty good Blue is the Warmest Color.

Even in scenes that could, if someone had a mind to outrage-masturbate, be called “gratuitous,” Glazer shows what’s necessary and no more. Like when Laura is looking at herself in the mirror. The camera doesn’t zoom in or linger excessively on breasts, ass or vagina, although they’re all visible at one point or another. Because the point is Laura’s mystification over what this disguise of a body actually is, and perhaps whether it’s become more than a disguise as time has passed. And in the only moment that could realistically be called a “sex scene” in a traditional sense, Johansson isn’t naked, which is telling. You could say that the movie inherently invites or is somehow “of” the male gaze, but then you could potentially say that about every fucking nude scene ever made, and do we want to excise all of those from the earth?

Shayna: Having ScarJo get naked in a movie is gonna put asses in the seats – there’s no question about that. But, to argue that reviewers are the only ones salivating over it completely misses the mark, especially when the film we’re dealing with is as much about objectification as it is about bodily decay, and the monstrousness it exposes beneath.

Her sexuality and her gender are a major part of what is supposed to make her terrifying in the first place. It’s that element of the monstrous-feminine at work within the film, and it helps to put the objectification we observe into a broader perspective.

And, while yes, her body is the focus of considerable male and female attention, ultimately she herself does much of the looking. Because she’s gazing at the world with fresh eyes, she also experiences things in a tactile way right from the jump. She goes for the heavy lipstick, the fur, the denim – she’s dressing like a hooker but not because Glazer’s painted her as some by-the-numbers alien seductress. These things feel good, and are meant to titillate her, not her victims. This is borrowed skin, and she seems as (if not more) eager to get off on it as the people she’s picking up are, and that’s something that I think transforms the nature of objectification here.

You could argue that she’s claimed that part of herself for her own pleasure, or that Glazer has escalated the horror by having the monster underneath revel in its stolen skin. Either way, while Under the Skin is clearly angling to be more than just an interesting bit of body horror, it’s one of the few things in the film that actually works.

At the film’s start, Laura is a predator in an animal sense, but that clearly starts to change. What are we ultimately to make of this aspect of the character’s arc?

Shayna: She never stops being a predator, we just quickly come to realize she’s not a very good one, and I think that informs how the rest of the story unfolds.

We’re right there with her throughout the journey, so that makes us feel for her, regardless of what kind of predator she is. We witness her intergalactic conception and birth. We hear her learning her first words (it was an inspired touch here on Glazer’s part to use a voice-over of Scarlett practicing her accent) and we see her stripping down a doppelganger and putting on the same attire in this very unfeeling, perfunctory kind of way before she begins to hunt.

But, for all her single-mindedness, she makes these increasingly desperate grabs for prey as time goes on (highlighted best by the deformed man she picks up while he’s on the way to the supermarket). It makes it clear that, as predators go, she’s shitty at the job. She’s scraping the barrel. It’s not surprising that she runs into trouble when she wanders away from the pack and encounters something bigger and hungrier than she is, because that’s usually how things work in the wilderness.

Liam: Wary as I am of the many bold comparisons to Kubrick critics are making with Under the Skin, I find them more apt as I think about it. In Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on 2001, he says the film is about realizing “that we are not flesh, but intelligence.”

To be an animal predator is to consider prey solely in terms of its value as flesh. Sustenance. Laura tries that at the beginning. It works for a while but her realization of her prey’s intelligence turns her into a “shitty predator,” as you appropriately put it, Shayna. Or maybe she was just never cut out for it in the first place. Either way, at the end, when she’s at the mercy of a human predator (who has the added factor of malice and/or psychosis), it’s stomach-turning even though you’ve not previously had any emotional connection to her.

Most of the men on screen weren’t actors, and weren’t aware they were being filmed until they were asked to sign releases. How does this guerrilla-style shooting – along with the score – impact the overall feel of the film?

Liam: I liked the realism added by this technique. At the screening Q&A, Glazer and producer James Wilson said they aimed to make what amounted to a documentary about an alien in a real and banal atmosphere. The fact that most of the dialogue amounts to small talk and nearly all of the Glaswegian accents are nigh-incomprehensible to American ears is telling. These are aggressively normal human beings. (#normcore is being heavily repped.)

The score by Mica Levi, meanwhile, is quite the opposite. It reinforces the disturbance that Laura’s presence represents. Levi blends screeching, vaguely atonal violins with insistent electronics, and the result sounds terrifying and, for lack of a better word, alien. Levi has crafted one of the rare scores that’s appreciable outside the film. I’m listening to it now, and I’d put it on par with Trent Reznor’s soundtrack work. (That’s not NIN stan-ery talking – the man earned his Social Network Oscar for a reason.)

Shayna: I think it’s a good concept and it generated some decent press for the film prior to release, but it gets tedious really quickly and contributes to the film’s pacing problems. What we have here translates to endless hours of ScarJo just driving around and repeating the same few lines of dialogue to a slew of Scottish randos speaking in a thick, indecipherable brogue.

Editing-wise, there was a lot to sift through here as a result. In a recent interview, Glazer noted that there was about 270 hours worth of footage to condense, and that editing was “a rigorous process.” Even stripped down, it feels like there’s just too much of it, and there’s scant semblance of any real drama in the story-telling. Instead, you feel like you’re sleepwalking through the film, in much of the same way Johansson is.

Mica Levi’s unsettling and atmospheric score is much more effective. At times, it feels intrusive and at odds with the bare bones, unaffected style in which the film was shot. But, it’s also big, booming and it has a way of sticking with the audience in a way that not much else from the film does.

Is the film’s considerable ambiguity ultimately a strength, weakness or something in between?

Liam: In the end, I think it’s more a strength than a weakness. I will admit that if I hadn’t read about the film and gone in completely cold, I might feel differently. Understanding the basic outlines of Under the Skin‘s story – an alien called Laura disguised as a brunette human woman seducing Scottish men, leading them to death and an ultimate fate as food or fuel (not sure which) – is essential.

This is arguably one of the most unnerving, disquieting movies released since David Lynch’s one-two 2000s punch of Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. I appreciated the disorientation I experienced, because I imagined that’s exactly what Laura was feeling, especially in the film’s second half when she becomes less sure of her role. It wasn’t necessary for the narrative to be totally clear. The general flow of the story is discernable because it’s never confusing despite the ambiguity.

Shayna: I think the ambiguity is a problem. Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell leave plenty of room for speculation about the nature of Laura’s mission and what all of it means, but there’s just not much here to connect with. As a viewing experience, Under the Skin feels dull and labored. And, the film also struggles to find its footing in other ways. There’s not enough exploration of the other side for it to work convincingly as a sci-fi drama, and while it could be billed as a horror film, a lack of blood, guts and even a discernible conflict make it a tough sell to fans of that genre as well.

[Don’t take our word for it, though. See it for yourself – Under the Skin opens 4/11 in Boston and various other cities, is already open in New York and L.A. and opens nationwide 4/18.]