Under the Skin opens in New York City and Los Angeles on April 4th. It expands to Chicago and other markets on April 11th.
Cinema is an inherently visual and audial stimulate, provoking thought through the expanses of the frame. But with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the point of sensory stimulation comes from the truest sense of unknowing. It’s a film where the vessel is an alien disguised as a human being, where its study of human behavior and social activities stem from a foreign perspective. This objective perspective has a direct effect on the compositional construction of Under the Skin, where all the overt sensory qualities that come from music, framing, and mise-en-scène, combine to create a work of immaculate sensual and aural qualities.
The opening sequence establishes the sonic tonal dissonance of the film’s structure. The initial images that permeate the screen are meant to establish the visual discord that will compose the picture. Glazer lingers on a black screen with only the slightest hint of a white light off center on the frame. Mica Levi’s remarkable synth/primal percussion score establishes the tonal odyssey that the audience is embarking upon. The image startlingly (aided by Levi’s unpredictable score) shifts from black to white. Following such an immediate and powerful assault of one’s optical capacities, Glazer appropriately fixates on a close-up of an eye: the film will be about perspective, about sight, and about our capacities to render what we see and process it within an emotional, social, and most importantly, human context.
If Glazer’s visual and audial design is considered dramatic, than his narrative tendencies largely subscribe to anti-drama. For a portion of Under the Skin’s runtime, Laura (Scarlett Johansson) simply observes. She wanders through a mall observing the process of commercialization and consumption. And as she takes to the streets of Glasgow in a van, she can only absorb the desolate people that inhabit the area. On one of her many nights of cruising the terrain, she picks up a man and posits the questions: “What do you love about living alone?”
Laura lures many men to her lair: a black room where Laura undresses, slowly backing away as men sporting erections chase after her whereby they eventually descend into a black tar abyss. For what purpose is left unknown, making the entire experience an incredibly frightening one. The event occurs unabated until Laura encounters a disfigured man. Unlike the previous men who were more than eager to ride alongside Laura, this man is reluctant. But Laura is persistent and finds the man’s warmth and inherent goodness appealing. An image of the man pinching himself as the two head for Laura’s place will remain etched in my mind.
Taken by the disfigured man’s goodness and perhaps unsure of the emotional complexities she’s experiencing, Laura attempts to infiltrate society as a member and not an observer. But by doing so, she’s completely stripped of any sense of agency. While initially utilizing her sexuality as a means to dominate men, Laura finds her sexuality used against her in a violent way when attempting to integrate herself within society.
If Glazer has shown any thematic consistency throughout his work, it’s that our optical capacities make it inherently difficult to acknowledge people beyond what they are at face value. Birth complicates the notion of reincarnation by having an adult woman contend with the possibility that her deceased husband has assumed a new form in a boy’s body. Under the Skin probes how what’s presented visually is a shell to the outside world and how social circumstances can prohibit or urge behavior. Laura’s seduction is easy in large part because she’s been exposed to a culture that yearns for immediate sensual and material satisfaction (her walk through the Glasgow mall reinforces the idea). Yet even as a fog of humanism complicates (or really, shapes) her alien judgment, her body/shell remains a commodity. As she’s surprisingly comforted by the warmth that’s offered to her by the disfigured man or a man who shelters her later in the film, sex remains the primary point to which these men are attracted to her. It’s a particularly bitter perspective that says more about how men and in large part, society, views women.
Under the Skin is an experience. It asks genuinely compelling questions about how humans function within a social structure and how that strips people of a sense of community and belonging. It engages the audience by producing images of dramatic contrast that can often times feel too out of reach. But as the film unfolds, Under the Skin takes shape to produce a new form of sensual cinema that aims to question what makes you most human. Films that shake your worldview are few and far between - this is one of them.