Sight and sound, the two pillars of the human experience. When incorporated as an expression of creativity, they can produce strong emotional resonance and beauty within us all. We do not need to understand or relate to feel, the right combinations are enough to trigger a response. Under the Skin understands this concept, taking the cinematic experience to new levels.
The film presents a series of abstract images and scenarios, all disconnected individually but each leaving behind the slightest trail for us to form into a bigger picture. Its excellence lies just as much in what is not shown as what we experience; the meaning is open to interpretation, with Glazer providing us with just enough to fill in the missing pieces. What we do see, is some of the most creative filmmaking in recent time, with some even comparing it to the behemoth that is 2001: a space odyssey. Perhaps the most flattering compliment a film can receive?
Without a doubt, Under the Skin is utterly unique. We follow an alien sent to earth, tasked with luring in men for, and this is an understatement, nefarious purposes. Scarlett Johansson is perfect in the role, able to express so much in so few words as she persuades man after man to get into her van. The crazy thing is, a lot of these scenes were filmed using unsuspecting members of the public. It allows us to see humanity from the perspective of another, something I’ve never witnessed in any form of media before. Ordinary people walking down the street felt alien to me as they shuffled along to go about their business. Looking at the world through this lens unveils some shocking truths, especially about the roles that gender, beauty and sexualisation play in our society.
We are a superficial species, basing our attraction on how someone physically looks on the outside. When Scarlett first arrives on earth, she observes the people around her and learns this, applying makeup to appear more appealing to her prey. The men fall head over heels for her, so blindsided by external beauty that they don’t even question what is going on. Even when exposed and clearly at risk, these men are set on their mission to sleep with ‘the female’. In a normal situation, they would be rewarded for this act, bragging to friends and gaining a confidence boost. If however, they knew what was under the skin, they would be repulsed and shocked. Inner beauty has no place in our society.
It’s no coincidence that the downfall of ‘the female’ only starts to happen when she stops trying to act like one. We are subconsciously taught to accept that certain genders and sexualities have to act and look a certain way. Whether it’s from magazines, blockbuster movies or celebrities, the ideal way to look and act to be accepted in society is written out for us. Anyone who breaks that mould is treated as an outcast. These archaic views still, unfortunately, plague this world and Under The Skin knows it all too well, providing a striking commentary on the tough experience of living under these preconceived notions.
What better place to set a strange and existential film than Scotland. The thick accents of the locals feel otherworldly, given the context. Unless you’re Scottish or heavily familiar with the local dialect, subtitles will be a necessity. The grey and misty mountains and forests provide a stunning yet bleak atmosphere that complements the tone. When asked why he moved to Scotland the surfer simply responded, “because it’s nowhere”. There’s one particularly impressive shot of a small town that uses its geographical verticality beautifully. We see a bus work its way down a winding road from the top right of the screen to the foreground, all while the female struggles to come to terms with a man being kind.
Ever since watching this, I’ve found it hard not to think about its messages and impact on me, trying to piece together all the ideas and concepts. It has taken me days to put together a somewhat coherent review that I’m still not happy with. One thing is for sure though: this is an essential piece of cinema that will likely go down in film history as a work of art.