Under the Skin, is part The Man Who Fell to Earth, part Let the Right One In. The story of a beautiful female serial killer who preys on vulnerable working-class men, it’s set in an unnamed Scottish city, and stars Scarlett Johannson and a cast of non-actors. Under the Skin seems to have polarized many film critics. Some have labeled it a masterpiece, others a complete bore. I’m somewhere in the middle.
The key to how you feel about Under the Skin is how you feel about Scarlett Johannson. I think she’s a very good, if somewhat over-hyped actress, an attractive woman but no Monica Vitti or Anna Karina. I think her willingness to strip herself naked, both emotionally and physically shows a lot of courage, but I also think she depends a little too much on raw sex appeal for the kinds of men she preys on. A plainer actress with a greater emotional range would have been far more terrifying in the same role. But your mileage may vary. If you’re a fan of Scarlett Johansson, if you like listening to her talk, watching her move, or trying to read her facial expressions, Under The Skin is the film for you.
I haven’t read the book Under the Skin, so I left the film with questions. Her motorcycle riding partner, is he her boss or her assistant? Is he human, or, like her, an alien who has taken on human form? What do her people actually do with the meat she harvests from the men she seduces? Do they freeze it and send them back to their home planet? Or is there an colony of aliens living on earth who dine on human flesh? I don’t think any of it really matters. I’m just curious.
Scarlett Johansson’s motivations, on the other hand, are key to whether or not the film works. The vampire heroine of Let the Right One In, a very similar film, is an old pedophile in the body of a 12-year-old girl. It’s genuinely terrifying because we can see exactly how and why the creature is grooming the little boy to be its companion. Under the Skin is a lot more complex. If you interpret the first half of Under the Skin as crude, misogynistic paranoia, the second half will probably confuse you. If you see the film as the transformation of an alien in the form of a heartless woman into a compassionate, and ultimately doomed human being, it makes perfect sense as a whole, but you’ll also wish the director had made better use of one or two key events in its narrative.
Under the Skin is set in a cold, grey northern country, Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. People are guarded, alienated, closed off, their emotions as chilly as the often beautiful landscape surrounding them. The working-class Scottish men Scarlett Johansson preys on seem like a particularly homely race. They have long torsos and short legs. They move without a hint of grace. They have no masculine force or charisma. Most of them are, in fact, non-professional actors, random men who couldn’t recognize Scarlett Johannson in her dyed black hair, fake furs, and stonewashed jeans shot. A good part of the film was shot with a hidden camera. The men later signed releases. But you can find attractive looking non-professional actors. Robert Bresson certainly did. Glasgow, I’m sure, is full of good looking men. The point of the film’s narrative, however, is that they be plain, dull, and, in one instance, downright hideous. They speak in thick, regional Scots accents. They’re shy, awkward, inarticulate.
I kept asking myself is how Under The Skin would have been received if it had been set, not in Scotland, not in a white, northern European country, but somewhere in the Third World. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Scarlett Johansson’s victims, whatever their color, are still the victims of the vanguard of an imperialist takeover. They’re society’s castoffs, dross, raw material for exploitation, meat. The only thing they have in common is that they’re so desperate for female company that they’ll get into a van with a strange woman, who, more often than not, comes off like a contemptuous bully. One again, your mileage may vary. But I found her patronizing manner, her fake posh BBC, Oxbridge accent to be a dead such a dead giveaway about her bad intentions that I would have turned tail and run as soon as she rolled down her window and asked me for directions.
Under the Skin re-imagines capitalist exploitation as sexual hierarchy. The beautiful Scarlett Johansson is as socially removed from the unattractive dupes she lures into her van as I am from the CEO of Goldman Sachs. The promise of sex is the whip hand that keeps the lower-class in line. But it’s the stress of acting as an enforcer that finally leads to her attempt to escape. While she’s a highly sexualized presence who uses her female allure to hunt her victims, she’s not really a woman. She is a proletarian, an alienated worker with a cruel job who finally breaks down under the horror of what she has to do day in and day out for her far-off employer. In the film’s cruelest, and what surely will become the most celebrated scene, she leaves a screaming toddler on the beach to die after its parents had drowned in the ocean and she murdered the child’s would be rescuer. In other words, she has no maternal instincts.
Eventually, however, she feels for the men she lures to their deaths. She picks up a tiny man at a nightclub — Scarlett Johansson is 5’3″ and she’s taller than he is — and harvests him for his meat. She seduces a visibly uncomfortable young man with an obvious line of flattery about how handsome he is. The breakdown finally comes when she picks up a man with a severe facial deformity. He’s 26 but could just as easily been 100. He’s never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t even seem particularly keen on getting into the van. Unlike her other victims, he has no illusions that any woman would ever desire him sexually. She grabs his hands. “You’ve got beautiful hands,” she says, trying to convince him that there’s more to him than his hideously deformed face. “When was the last time you touched anybody?”
The effort it takes to bring the hideously deformed young man back to her apartment causes her breakdown. She’s had enough. She lets him live. What’s more, the amount of emotional warmth she had to show the poor creature to get him to follow her — he has no sexual vanity to play on — leads to genuine empathy. When she interrogates him about the last time he had ever touched another human being, she realizes that she herself has never genuinely touched another human being. She reminds herself that she’s an alien creature wearing the skin of a woman her partner had murdered along the side of the road. Her identification with her victim, in turn, makes her realize how she herself is being exploited. Her job, a gopher for unseen alien overlords who dine on human flesh, is brutal and degrading. The labor is relentless and unrewarding. Indeed, the conveyer belt full of bloody human guts she has to feed almost reminded me of working on the “slime line” in an Alaskan salmon cannery. She’s a predator but she’s a predator who punches a time clock and who doesn’t enjoy the fruits of her labor. She’s an alien proletarian having the surplus value of her work skimmed off by her far off capitalist overlords.
If Under The Skin has a major weakness, it’s puritanism. Sex, the desire for sex, is bad. First it makes you a dupe. I kept congratulating myself on how I never would have gotten into that van with Ms. Johansson. We don’t see any of the actual murders. The only time we see anybody killed is when she bashes a half drowned swimmer’s skull with a rock. What we do see is men being stripped naked. They’re symbolically murdered when they join her in a featureless black room for a walk over what looks to be a toxic lake of black goo. She walks over the surface. They sink. If we see a man’s penis, we know he’s dead. Keep an eye out, by the way, for which penis are erect and which are flaccid. The naked male body is ugly. Seeing it is dirty. Even the naked female body seems less than attractive. Once again, your mileage may vary but I found very little to admire about Scarlett Johansson’s fat legs, bubble butt and short stature.
After Scarlett Johansson’s character runs away from her bloody job, she becomes, not a predator, but a victim of male predation. She walks through a small Scots Highland town without proper clothing. A man feels compassion for her. He buys her a jacket, brings her home, and gives her something to eat. But, inevitably he tries to make love to her. Why? He seemed like a decent sort and she seemed to be in such an obvious state of emotional distress sex should have been the last thing to came to mind. Just as I kept hoping the men in Glasgow would “pass the test” and not get into the van, I kept hoping that this strange man in the Highlands would also pass the test and not try to try to fuck her. He fails. It’s perfectly consensual, but it still feels dirty. I suppose that’s the point. She’s an alien without a vagina. But the man’s sexual attraction feels like a moral failing. We begin to notice he’s almost as plain and unattractive as the men she picks up back in Glasgow. He lives in a crappy apartment and watches vulgar TV comedies. He carries her across some muddy water. It feels vaguely ridiculous. He takes her on a tour of an abandoned castle. Finally, thankfully, she runs away. The gap between men and women is unbridgeable.
By the end of Under the Skin, the film lost its hold over me. I kept hoping the pace would pick up, that it would have some kind of clear cut resolution. It does, in fact, have a clear cut resolution. But the pace remains the same, slow, glacially slow, Bruno Dumont slow. I also began to care about the film’s logic. I was no longer willing to suspend my disbelief. I started to ask questions. She’s terrified of the last man she meets, a would be rapist. But I wondered why. She had already murdered scores of other men. Is a human flesh eating alien no stronger than the typical human woman? Or did she lure the men in Glasgow home so that her partner could murder them. In the denouement, the would be rapist commits such a gratuitously vicious act it almost seems to justify the murder of the innocent men back in Glasgow. Female serial killers? Now rapists? Under the Skin is just so dark you want it to end. There’s no catharsis, just a slow, creepy drawn out shiver of horror.
But I suppose that’s the point.