Under the Skin is an expression of humanity shown through an alien lens. Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece is the filmic expression of what people mean when they say, “show, don’t tell.” It is an ethereal and tonally alien piece of work, delving into the psychology of how we gender and sexualize women. Scarlett Johansson has the avant-garde role of a lifetime, as an alien sent to harvest the meat from humans, who finds empathy and love instead, and is punished. The entire production hinges on a vast, cosmic score by Mica Levi that will haunt your dreams forever.
The story is loosely inspired by the literature of the same name by Michel Faber. In the book, an alien is sent to our planet to harvest unsuspecting hitchhikers for their meat, a delicacy back on their home world. It’s a big metaphysical experiment with different goals and hooks than the film. Where the book goes deep into the alien’s relation to consumerism and the human experience, the film tragically showcases the alien’s experience as a woman, and is more singular in its goal to convey this experience. Moving the story from the Scottish countryside to Glasgow reflects a different urban feeling. Our narrator has also gone from the named Isserley to an unnamed character – we’ll refer to her as Scarlett Johansson from here. The literary character is more tangentially related to a dog-like alien, with the whimsical wonder of a child about her world, while Scarlett is reserved and clinical about her hunt. What they both excel at is showing us exactly what they mean through imagery, without ever having to tell us that’s what they mean.
Under the Skin could have a wordless script and work as a silent film but it is designed to be an audiovisual masterpiece instead. It has one of the most affecting, experimental scores by classically trained musician Mica Levi (of abstract-pop band Micachu and the Shapes). From writing for string quartets to warping strip club music into haunting tomes of sexual dread, she proves to be absolutely masterful. The music here is intensely layered on an audiovisual level. When Scarlet drags men back to the void, she teases and provokes in some of the most sexual sequences put to film. These imply sex beyond penetration, the textures and feeling of sex but also abstracted, made alien and grotesque, while still beautiful and burning with passion. Levi conveys this sense in an interview with The Guardian: “Some parts are intended to be quite difficult. If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.”
Where most sound designers will cut loud humanistic sounds, they have been amplified here. Crunches and crackles cut through the porous absence of the void. People speak in their brisk Scottish tongue. Every line and sound is a stylistic enhancement of this romantic style. Levi has concocted a love potion of a soundtrack. The sounds have their own tender moisture, they ooze sexuality, they sound like the fractured orgasms of the Damned. Levi wrote the songs using a viola, influenced by the arrangements of Iannis Xenakis’ “Tetras”, pulling together sweeping strings and aleatoric improvisations. Together, the brutalist sound design and maximalist sound mix achieve a perfect sensuality.
Take Levi’s “Lipstick to Void“. This is one of the most haunting tracks recorded for film. Try listening to this without shifting uncomfortably to the darkest recesses of the mind. It’s a song that sits languidly in the sandbox of primal desire and wants to dump the sand over your head. A nightmare of love eating itself. Or try “Love“, the musical expression of what Kubrick achieved in the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is, to catalog the entire human experience. The song unwinds in discordant symphonies, the unbound pleasure of flesh, and the transcendence of giving your love to someone else. The entire soundtrack deserves placement in a damn museum, it’s truly too beautiful to live.
Glazer works within rigid restrictions that pay dividends. Under the Skin is shot with the objectivity of a documentary. That is to say, the human and real parts, left on the cutting room floor in other movies, are what gets included here. Short of casting additions, Scarlett Johansson drove around Scotland picking up men who were unaware they were being filmed. Many of the characters in the film are not actors at all. Many of the conversations are genuine and about discovering other people. Exactly like Isserley of the book, the casting process became the same as the alien hunting process, manipulating men into cooperating for the project’s goals. During its sweetest moments, she picks up a disfigured man and they have a heart to heart, where her character has some kind of experiential shift and begins to understand human feelings. Adam Pearson, our brave disfigured subject, said of his scene, in The Guardian piece about how they’ve changed the stigma for disfigured actors, “For me, the film is about what the world looks like without knowledge and without prejudice. It’s about seeing the world through alien eyes, I guess.” His is my favorite performance, affecting, true, something legitimately never captured before.
From the beginning, we’re given cues of her otherness. She arrives by spaceship, which parks itself into an adjoining dilapidated home. This is where she’ll bring the men to harvest. She meets a man on a motorcycle, an elite alien (going by the book), who’s packed the body of the woman she’s replacing into his truck. The film expands into endless white space, as Scarlett Johansson takes the expired aliens clothes and dresses herself, trying on someone’s skin for the first time. The dead alien has a tear rolling down her cheek and we understand, she must have felt too much. Then it’s off to the streets of Glasgow. The city life is always filmed in an observational objective style, which allows human interaction to unfold in naturalistic ways. At first she’s an observer, stalking the malls and taking in what human culture looks like, and not completely horrified by the experience of our consumerism, she becomes a participant.
When Scarlett lures the men back to her craft, the tone shifts dramatically. As they enter the doorway, perplexed by the odd derelict building and the idea that this woman would live in a place like this, the camera closes in tight to the door, framing their final, claustrophobic contact with Earth. The environment gives way to black, leaving only her and the men. It becomes the most erotic challenge of predator and prey, as the music teases her clothes off. The men follow. They strip too and peruse her into the darkness, slowly seeping into the floor as they walk. Their bodies harden, begin to constrict inside the black liquid. They are consumed completely by sex, consumed in the endless refractory period of their deaths. They stay inside, occasionally screaming out to new men sinking into the floor before constricting into formless meat particles, their remains shipped down a conveyor belt to be sold to the aliens. These scenes have carried a great influence for horror to follow, such as the excellent Sunken Place sequences of Get Out. They are both the most sexual and terrifying thing Scarlett Johansson – or perhaps any actress – has ever filmed.
Under the Skin also deals with a more human sexuality. It does feature full-frontal nudity for Scarlett handled in a mature and artistic way. She admires her human skin in the mirror. This moment in the film signifies her understanding of humanity and the beauty of all women. Much more than the book, this is a celebration of feminism. It’s a tragedy of the female experience. It’s about a gender binary alien coming to our planet and trying on the female form. Based on her treatment by men, she grows to understand her own external beauty and sex, and men in turn tear her apart for her internal differences. The film works as a great philosophical work about the nature of gendering and sexualization of women in our culture. This is the experience of all women.
The objective gaze of the camera elevates the horror. It treats sex, and death, and terrified abandoned babies left by the ocean all the same. Only Scarlett receives special attention. During her radical feminization, we see the evolution, her trying on the makeup from the mall, going through the process every woman does, to hide what’s underneath and expose a different beauty. What’s remarkable is that she doesn’t have to speak. She has lines but they don’t say nearly as much as what she does with her movement. The actress uses her eyes to convey emotion, thought, power, weakness, whatever the moment calls for. We’re powerfully changed by her performance and all she does is move, and it moves us to our core. This atypical performance is especially interesting when you consider her other signature act in Her, a film that exclusively uses her voice to emote. She is an actor of immense range whom utilizes every part of herself to tell a story.
There’s a weird turn in Under the Skin’s third act. It inevitably settles down into a more human rhythm. Scarlett begins to synch with emotions, after allowing the disfigured man to escape. She tries eating some cake and becomes frustrated she can’t experience the decadence of whatever pleasure it withholds. This upsets her greatly and while taking a train, she bonds with a man who wants to take her home and comfort her. She enjoys comedy television for the first time, taps her hands in rhythm to some music, is humanized by the moment. She’s found herself and come to understand her female beauty and is able to share in it with him. When it comes to actually having sex, she has a complete breakdown – having just found her sense of womanhood, the first thing a man can do is violate and penetrate her.
This is one of the film’s most interesting tricks. We’ve spent the entire time watching her scout and decimate unsuspecting men and now there is a play for our sympathy. She could’ve saved that orphaned baby on the beach! She’s selling men for meat parts! Because the film slows down and provides human depth and experience behind her interactions – freeing the disfigured man and discovering womanhood – it works as designed. It’s important to note, her usefulness to the aliens has also expired, and now that she’s no longer on the hunt, she’s become the prey. Existing as a hunter was never the most resilient aspect of her character, it was essentially her enslavement, a replaceable alien wearing a feminine husk that grew too close to their prey, and have ensured their own obsolescence. There is a meta commentary about gender politics wrapped inside all of this. Our Elite Alien, cloaked in male skin, checks on Scarlett throughout for signs of emotion and humanity, ensuring she stays objective for her job. This plays out as a parable for the way women are repressed by men the moment they find a means of independent expression.
Frightened by the man’s sexual proposition, she runs into the woods. There’s nowhere to hide in public now, with the aliens after her. A man working in the forest takes advantage and tries to rape her. As a general warning, this film exists within these themes and could be devastating if you find that difficult. It will probably be devastating anyway. After a struggle, a smattering of alien material rubs off on the man, and he backs away terrified. The final reveal is shot with a frigid distance, every shot cold and detached. The alien removes Scarlett’s torn skin, revealing its smoothed black features underneath, and holding the skin suit in her hands, it looks back at her and blinks. The man returns and pours gasoline over her, lighting her on fire. The hunter has become the hunted and the aliens have come for her corpse.
Under the Skin entrances us. This is dangerous art. Jonathon Glazer operates under a Kubrickian school of thought, that there are completely new ideas left in cinema and that technical perfection can be accomplished with restraint. I recommend experiencing it like Acid, in a safe environment with people you trust. Never before has the grotesque been so beautiful. This is a film that haunts your thoughts, begging for closer and closer examination until it swallows you whole. Experience Under the Skin with an open mind and find its essential newness. It has so much to reveal to you.
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