Happily, neither the cool reception of Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece Birth, nor its lack of well-deserved critical rehabilitation in the intervening decade, have dulled the director’s approach to the intertwining mysteries of love and power.
Under the Skin is another role reversal of predators: it follows a lone alien invader (Scarlett Johansson) who, in the guise of a beautiful human woman, seduces men to her home, where their organs are harvested in an inky black void.
It is a film that demands attentive eyes and sharp ears. Its plot beats are not delivered through words, but through a careful succession of images rich in narrative and thematic implication. Its emotional payoffs don’t come through anguished closeups, but through an aesthetic schema that mixes calculated compositions with abstracted imagery, lush ambience with the thin, shivering strings of Mica Levi’s score.
Its first hour functions largely as a low-key horror film, and the second as a tragic, almost domestic drama. A sort of chill runs throughout, but it is the cold of loneliness and sorrow, not detachment.
Emphasis on filmic devices at the exclusion of theatrical or literary norms often lands a film the tag of “clinical,” but this can be camouflage for a lack of engagement with cinematic grammar. Under the Skin is a prime example of how its medium’s devices can work on their own, autonomous from the traditions of older art forms.
That separation from familiar means of storytelling is at once integral to its effect (physical alienation) and wholly scrutable. In a key scene — the film’s most important story beat — countless orange, kaleidoscopic images of day-to-day human life are superimposed over Johansson’s face, and the unnerving violin that dominates the score gives way to warm electronic tones. It’s exemplary of narration through abstraction, and yet it’s not a hard moment to read, especially contextually.
So the film allows its alien to stay alien, free of histrionics or the tropes of human emotions (unless you count having emotions as a trope) and, so long as we invest in trying to understand her, makes for a surprisingly engaging and sympathetic character. So when the film’s inevitable and tragic role reversal occurs, we’re just as troubled by the danger facing her as we are by our sympathy for someone whom we’ve seen horrifically murder several people.
Therein lies the power of the film’s allegory for sexual politics: it asks how we can condemn someone who truly does not know better — who, in fact, seems to have been engineered not to know better — without playing down the tragedy of its central crimes.
There is one scene where dialogue holds substantive importance. The alien picks up a man with severe facial disfigurement, who admits that he has no friends and only goes out at night to escape ignorance and judgment.
As the two talk with each other, their words betray more than they intend, and it becomes clear that his disease and her immaculately mounted appearance are two sides of the same coin. She knows it too, and her decision at the end of the sequence is at once one of the film’s most touching, mysterious, and disquieting moments.