Last week I wrote a piece on Scarlett Johansson suggesting that she was always cast as a beautiful woman and that as a result people tend to overlook her acting talent. Of course, it is perfectly possible to excel in the pretty girl roles but people get pigeonholed. Well, in Under the Skin, Johansson has proved herself again. She plays an extra terrestrial woman who uses her looks to prey on men but gives a mesmerising, brave and unforgettable performance. This is no art house version of Species.
It is an art house film though, make no mistake about that. My last post spoke of my appreciation for Asghar Farhadi’s movie The Past and how at no point was the dialogue used to stop and tell the story. Compared to this though, The Past looks like Jackanory; there is no exposition in Under the Skin at all. What we get is a series of sometimes quite random sequences and the audience is left to string them together into some kind of narrative. It is pretty avant-garde.
The plot as it is has Scarlett Johansson stealing a dead girl’s clothes and driving around Glasgow in a van picking up guys. Needless to say, once they get back to her place, things do not go as the gents expected. Unless they were hoping to get hypnotised, pickled and ultimately relieved of all of their bones and internal organs. This is all very artistically done you understand.
It clearly sounds like the worst kind of schlocky B-Movie imaginable but it genuinely isn’t. It is atmospheric, poetic and has great aesthetics. This clearly isn’t the first time a generic plot or setting has been given the arty treatment. 2001, Let The Right One In and Stoker all fit this bill to some extent but Under the Skin is far more experimental than any of these. I also can’t recall a time when a Hollywood A-Lister has done something quite so unconventional.
None of this is to say that the film is hard to follow. Johansson’s unnamed character initially goes about her mission without demonstrating any signs of morality or humanity and this is well played and chilling. She is animalistic in the way she lives merely for her own survival with no concern for others and this is most disturbingly illustrated in one powerful scene on a stormy beach. The way she reacts to a distressed baby here is shocking and quite brutal by our standards but is non-violent and entirely practical by hers.
Things begin to change though when she meets one potential victim and her normal predatory behaviour inadvertently begins to appear exceptionally compassionate. We eventually begin to see in her the tiniest indications of emotion and she becomes confused, dysfunctional and vulnerable. The final shot of her in the woods with her head in her hands is a very powerful image and one that has stayed burned on my brain since I saw it.
Under the Skin is an ambitious and uncompromising film that examines notions of who we are beneath the surface and what makes us human. It isn’t always an easy film to watch but I am really pleased to have had the experience. It is a very good movie and all credit to Scarlett Johansson for showing us that she is so so much more than a pretty face.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Well, the film wins its first point easily but then it gets a bit trickier. This is the second film I’ve seen in two months (the other being Her), where Johansson is the female lead but isn’t human so can’t actually have a sister in the normal sense. Still, I think I respect the character, she is only following her natural instincts, but I don’t think her actions should be celebrated.
Is this one for the kids?
The quick answer to that is no. The film is rated 15 and contains frequent nudity. That said it is evenly split between men and women so doesn’t seem so improper or sexist. None of it is erotic and it is good to see that when Scarlett Johansson is out of Black Widow’s catsuit she looks like an ordinary woman, not an artificially airbrushed super model.