When you envision art house films, I’m sure many people conjure up things happening on screen that just make no sense. People doing things for no apparent reason, films that have very little dialogue, something with off the wall sound effects or score that just puts you in a really weird place. While movies that challenge the audience to think can put a moviegoer on top of the world, films that overdo it just make your head hurt by making the viewer ask the question ‘why?’ too damn much.
Such is the case with Under the Skin. While there is a very loose assemblage of a story, character motivations aren’t clear and the film challenges viewers to piece together what’s going on on their own. While my brains weren’t fried while watching Under the Skin, I did find myself scratching my head one too many times wondering what it all was trying to say. There’s definitely some high concept stuff going on here, and if I have to venture a guess some of it involves the exploration of what it’s like to be a human as well as sexuality.
So what exactly is Under the Skin about? Well, it stars Scarlett Johansson as an (for lack of a better term) otherworldly being in the body of woman wandering the Scottish countryside picking up men. While at first things appear to be sexual in nature, things take a dark turn when this being lures men into a dark space (literally) and under the pretense of having sex with them, kidnaps them to another dimension and destroys/devours/absorbs them. It’s really not that clear what happens to these unfortunate fellows that fall victim to this trap, but they go in expecting one thing, and never come back out.
While it may read as twisted, in the film things are a lot more vague with no real explanation given for why men are being lured into this space. What adds another layer to all this is that men who are chosen need to meet certain criteria to be selected–usually those who are unattached, live alone, and have no family. Are these types of men more sexually aggressive than others? Is that why they are being targeted? The film doesn’t really say, but it does give Johansson’s character serial killer like tendencies the way she selects men that probably won’t be missed.
Again I can’t be certain, but if I had to venture a guess, a big part of this whole thing has to do with Johansson and her peeps studying us humans. While a majority of the film is spent following her hunting down men, several other scenes in the film depict her observing reactions of ordinary people. One scene in particular she purposely falls down and just lies there on the ground. Passers-bye stop and offer assistance to see if she’s alright, but we never quite know why she does what she does. In another strange and creepy sequence, we see her stand idly by as someone drowns while another person tries to rescue them.
While a lot of this weird stuff goes on for more than half of the film, things change when Johansson encounters a man that is different from all the men that she’s selected previously. She seems to take to take pity on this soul and after the encounter her character and motivations seem to shift towards understanding what it’s like to be a human–as if she wasn’t doing this before. Things such as taste, what it’s like to be taken care of, what it’s like to have a sexual experience, and even what it’s like to be afraid Johansson’s character seems to experience for the first time after this pivotal encounter.
One thing I will give the film huge credit for is its score. Right from the onset you are put on unnatural footing by the wistful and somewhat synthetic score. Throughout the film suspense builds with many long and slowly building notes that not only increase in volume, but in pitch as well. Coupled with the vague storytelling on screen, most of the time I had a heightened sense of awareness just from the score alone.
At the end of the day though, I was entertained by the technical aspects of the film more than I was the story; which for me is problematic. While I don’t think you’re supposed to relate or even identify with the Johansson’s character, without anyone’s motivations, I never understood where the film was really going. Was this otherworldly being ensnaring these men to feed off of them in some way? Was she doing it for kicks? Was she studying them? Was she exploring what it was like to be a human being? And why did this being have to look like Scarlett Johansson for?
While I think my second to last question might be the most insightful one, who’s to say with the vagueness of it all. Under the Skin is definitely a challenging film to take in, so I give anyone credit who ventures to check it out. Though it is very picturesque, well shot, and creates a wonderful sense of foreboding and tension with its score; I needed a bit more from the story to get under the film’s skin. For me, it was all above the surface really.
Cinematic Scene: Going Under the Skin
So what exactly does happen when men get lured by Scarlett Johansson‘s feminine wilds into another dimension? While this may sort of venture into spoiler-ish territory, in the grand scheme of the movie describing this scene doesn’t really give anything away. But, on the off chance you’re extra cautious, proceed with caution after the break . . .
A couple of times in the film we see Johansson’s character lure men in to an alternate space that is completely black. While on several occasions we see both of them disrobe and the men sink into the floor, in one instance we get to see what happens after the guy gets sucked under. In the scene, the newest victim to succumb to the trap finds himself floating in a liquid like state. As he looks across the dark expanse he spots another victim, seemingly the last person that fell prey to the same trap. Though it’s dimly lit, you can sort of make out that the life seems to have been slowly sucked away from this guy since he looks wrinkly.
Then, before you have a chance to fully take in what’s going on, the guy vaporizes in a jump cut and in his place all that’s left is his skin. It just floats there like a deflated human balloon; eerily flapping back and forth with the current. It’s a really striking scene save for the fact that a dude was just vaporized. It’s also so abrupt that it keeps you off balance but at the same time blows you away as well. Technically its really creative and though creepy, there is sort of an elegance to it.
2.5/5 stars // rated R // 1hr 48min