The weird abstractions and head-scratching symbolism of Under The Skin probably account for its not-entirely enthusiastic reception, but they’re also its strongest feature.
Along with Scarlett Johansson’s fascinatingly cryptic and brave performance, which continues her recent (and welcome) foray into challenging roles that foreground and then subvert audience expectations, these imagistic themes demand engagement and interpretation, and nothing is made particularly easy. It’s a cold film for much of its running time, and probably merits multiple viewings, but it’s also often incredibly beautiful.
What it’s all about is another story. Johansson is a nameless creature, listed in the credits as “The Female”: most descriptions call her an alien, though I don’t think that’s ever actually confirmed. The film’s lovely first five minutes could reasonably imply some sort of stellar transit, with moons and other bodies eclipsing each other before morphing into her retina, but no title card ever appears announcing, “Meanwhile, ON EARTH.”
That she’s “otherworldly” is beyond dispute, though. She begins by changing clothes with a woman pulled from a ditch by a mysterious motorcycle man who recurs throughout the film, credited as “The Bad Man”. She applies red lipstick, dons an instantly iconic fur coat, and drives around Glasgow, Scotland, trying to pick up men who are alone and without apparent connections.
She seduces them, brings them back to a house, and, as they follow her disrobing form to what they presumably imagine to be a bedroom, they’re slowly swallowed up in an inky black pit of some viscous substance. They do so willingly, though, seemingly drawn to her with a magnetic pull. She retraces her steps and picks up the clothes she’d discarded, walking herself without effort over the darkness, and heads back out in her van to look for more.
This continues for some time. Much of the film was shot covertly, on a house-built camera, and simply involves Johansson talking out her window to strange men on the street. This verite feel stands in stark contrast to the highly mannered formalism of the abstract shots, like the mysterious ink pit or assorted shows of light and darkness. It’s a bold choice, even if some of the passing Scots are borderline impossible to understand (for this guy, anyway).
Eventually, something shifts. Throughout the film, Johansson’s encounters have been clearly underwritten by her otherworldliness – her blank eyes and face suddenly shift to a charming and coy version of herself, as though she’s learned to smile from instructional videos. She is all performance, with a hollowness at her core. But after an encounter with a severely deformed man, it seems she’s become aware of her own physicality, and interested in whatever is human about her (which the movie refuses to make clear). A scene where she inspects herself in front of the mirror is striking and oddly sad.
After all the close confines, shadowy corridors, and black mystery pits, we find ourselves mostly in the forest all of a sudden, surrounded by rain and earth elements. Is she returning to something? Or escaping from this life imposed on her by the Motorcyle Man, who’s some sort of interstellar pimp?
Conversation with a friend after the film focused on the masculine and feminine and the ways they were embodied and portrayed, an inescapable element of whatever it is that’s going on here. And especially on the “male gaze” in cinema, which, with Her, it seems Johansson is currently picking projects specifically to toy with, complicate, and subvert. After all, it is her character who spends most of the time looking at others in the film, even as we look at her, and even as the Bad Man looks at her. It’s her character who seduces and traps these unwitting men — maybe she is able to survive only by consuming their essence, or maybe she’s tasked with this by someone further up a hierarchy that never reveals itself, exactly.
Or maybe Under The Skin is determined to remain elusive on such questions. It’s a movie to marvel and wonder at, and if it drags in parts, the high points more than make up for that. It’s a unique experiment, and experience, and has more to say, even obliquely and with its images, moods, and technique, than most 10 films combined.