Edited 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 clinical white with a person we know nothing of (Scarlett Johansson) walking 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 and everyday noises – pants sliding off of legs – which are loudened to unnatural levels. It is a wondrous display of pure cinema, and in its arch-detachment, it fails to give us any information, in doing so paradoxically turning no emotion into perhaps the ultimate emotion: inescapable 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 uneasy scenes, when our main character has her way with unsuspecting men around her. The scenes are turned into cold ballets of pure motion rendered into abstract blends of motion and piercing sound, all quavering around in backgrounds of pure blackness. There is nothing realistic about these images, but the rest of the film is almost depressingly, drearily fond of realism. Johansson’s character drives through a pointedly quotidian but somehow unknowable Scottish suburbia and has perhaps the most ennui-addled, boring 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 boringly 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 pure color rather than real landscapes. The naturalism is further in tension with Johansson’s performance – Glazer has hit new strides and perhaps reached the limit of directorial attempts to use the famously beautiful Johansson for extremely detached, alien, and emotionally-depleted purposes, achieving a new apex of beautifully controlled non-acting. 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. The thing is, she quite obviously realizes this and aims specifically for a sort of hyper-detachment in all her best performances, often picking roles and directors who know her as the mannequin-like chimera she sees her image to be.
At the same time, it speaks something to gender relations in modern society that the modern male has fallen in love with her: she is quite literally a male fantasy, an almost completely passive figure who speaks little and mostly lets men impart their fantasies onto her. Her roles have no voice of her own. She does not play characters so much as blank expressionless slates for male fulfillment, and Glazer seems to realize this – he uses 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 – quite literally she is just a male fantasy – but no man notices because they do not truly want a human female. They want the image, and Glazer openly renders this an image 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 works for its pure feeling more than 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 clinical 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 its own). In a sense, its closest modern point of comparison in terms of favoring the pure power 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. It is an altogether masterful, one-of-a-kind film, and it finds liveliness in death like no other film this year.