Edited Dec 2014 after I watched a second time and noticed how jaw-dropping the sound design is; sometimes the beauty of images, and the fact that film is a primarily visual medium, distract from the wondrous world of noise.
Under the Skin opens with several minutes of film boiled down to its pure essentials: sound and image. Quite literally, the film begins on an impenetrable warble that morphs into a drone, with a mouse of a light at an eternal distance from us and moving ever-forward. It grows blinding as the noise distracts and unnerves us further, before the abstract light becomes an eye – the very means by which we process images, all the more telling considering the way what precedes this eye favors sound at the expense of image.
We then get an archly, inescapably clinical white canvas upon which a person we know nothing of (Scarlett Johansson) walks around another person, observing her with no sound, and taking off her clothes – the scene is not the least bit erotic, nor does it contain any other semblance of emotion whatsoever. It is instead a pure ballet of motion, obsessed with the human form in movement, as well as everyday noises – pants sliding off of legs – which are loudened to unnatural levels, registering a kind of intimacy that is intoxicating but also uncomfortably alienating. It is a wondrous display of pure cinema, and in its supremely naturalistic but deeply abstract detachment, it fails to give us any particularly mimetic information, any reasonable grounding in the world around us. In doing so, the opening paradoxically turns no emotion into perhaps the ultimate emotions: detached fascination curdles into inescapable abjection and truly abyssal dread.
I must warn: the film does threaten a semblance of narrative, about a figure who appears as a woman (Johansson) wandering around a city and having her way with men. But if it has a narrative, this is not narrative cinema. In another world, it could be a laidback road trip that approximates cryptic episodism more than narrative. It has the feel of a road movie, with a character driving around and mostly just “existing”. But director Jonathan Glazer turns the unknowing road, as well as the more general mundanity of everyday life that forms the basis for road movies, into pure horror.
To this extent, the film understands wholly and completely the central logic of horror: reality and surreality put into a blender and stirred around in the most angular, uncomfortable of ways. Of utmost import are the film’s most disquieting scenes, when our main character has her way with unsuspecting men around her. The scenes are cold ballets of pure motion rendered into abstract blends of vaguely cosmic movement and piercing sound, all quavering around in backgrounds of terrifying emptiness. There is nothing realistic about these images, but the rest of the film is almost disturbingly fond of realism. Johansson’s character drives through a pointedly quotidian but somehow unknowable Scottish suburbia and has perhaps the most ennui-addled, vacuous conversations one can imagine with strangers, all photographed with a sort of grungy, dismal arch-realism.
In fact, Jonathan Glazer set out precisely for this effect: he filmed a good portion of the movie simply by having Johansson drive around in a car while wearing a black wig, stopping to converse rather tediously with passers-by. All the while, miniscule cameras positioned around the car voyeuristically captured the intersection of performance and reality. This sort of arch-naturalism is wonderfully at odds with the very open-faced non-naturalism of the film’s murders, which are literally framed in limbos of cinematographic color rather than real landscapes. The naturalism is further evident in Johansson’s performance, hitting new strides of anti-acting as Glazer deconstructs her famously beautiful features for emotionally-depleted purposes, achieving a new apex of astonishingly controlled non-acting, rendering performance as enigma. The fact that she has become a sex symbol is both curious and telling – as an actress, she leans toward the laconically stiff and dispassionate. Quite obviously aware of her performative inclinations (or capacities? who can say), she aims specifically for a sort of cryptic hyper-detachment in all her best performances, often picking roles and directors who know her as the mannequin-like chimera she sees her screen image to be.
At the same time, it speaks something to gender relations in modern society that she is such a sex symbol: many of her characters, particularly the more intentionally vacuous and artificial ones, are quite literally male fantasies, a vision here rendered as an almost completely passive canvas who speaks little and mostly lets men impart their fantasies onto her. She often does not play characters so much as blank expressionless slates for male fulfillment, and Glazer seems to realize this, as does she – they weaponize it to turn the male gaze back onto the male as their fantasy turns into a nightmare.
The film’s core, the center of its horror, is the melding of this arch- naturalism with the arch-artifice of Johannson’s character– it is painfully obvious that Johannson is at odds with the film, existing at a perpendicular angle to it and yet masked from observation or difference by her looks. No one notices her difference, even as the film makes us clearly aware of her sinister-confused intent. She is not human – the character is a totally inhospitable alien who preys on male fantasies – but no man notices, the film suggests, because they do not truly want a human female. They want the image, the manipulable artifice, the canvas for them to mold themselves and who has no desires of her own. Glazer openly renders this imagistic artificiality by filming parts of the film through a prismatic, hallucinatory nightmare lens. The most affecting moments feature lengthy cuts of non-action where males engage in the most mundane of activities, while she stares on and on at them. And the “murders”, insofar as they can be called murders, blend the abstract (a human morphs into boiled-down, pure geometry) with the mundane (a human continues to occupy the real world by lightly, anxiously nodding his head as if in a club, despite being bordered by a pure black frame of darkness). The dreary, doleful realism of the rest of the film makes the baleful unreality of Glazer’s avant-garde filmic manipulation all the more unnerving.
For all its formal innovation and craftsmanship, the film is also enigmatic to the point of purposeful-iridescence. Any reading of the film can be met, rather easily, with an equal but opposite one – so there’s a rather clear anti-feminist message lurking around the corner for any pro-feminist one, as with the one I’ve put forth so many paragraphs ago. But then this is horror, in reality, and horror is ultimately about affect. Subtext thrives around the film and often forms its core, but horror cinema, at least here, is primarily an exercise in the uncomfortable ambiguities of pure feeling more than the pointed and tendentiously directed arguments of intellectual subtext.
And Under the Skin is a film that lives on pure feeling. Visually and aurally, it’s an abstract hell-scape that bridges the illogic of dream and nightmare, moving between hazy ethereal chills to pure, garish color all left out to dry in an aura of disturbed detachment. Glazer lets shots sway in the breeze and holds takes for impenetrable lengths as they build tension through their sheer empty space. And the sound design is surely best-of-the-year, alternating unnatural, mechanical warbles with wonderfully fleshy, hyper-realist lived-in sounds pushed right to the forefront of the mix so that the mundane becomes painful (the opening bit where Johansson slowly, methodically undresses an assumedly dead woman with no explanation makes the natural sounds of clothing rustling out to be an art form of its own). In a sense, its closest modern point of comparison in terms of favoring the primordial potency of look and feel over any narrative whatsoever is the effervescent Tree of Life, although the effect of the films are inescapably at odds with one another: one is an epitome of wandering humanist warmth in search of genuine intimacy with the cosmos (although certainly not unafraid of the possibility of loneliness) and the other is a chilling portrait of abject alienation masquerading as intimate connection between men and women. Under the Skin is an altogether masterful, one-of-a-kind film, and it finds liveliness in death like no other film this year.