Canon Entry - Under the Skin (2013)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
An adaptation of Michel Faber’s literary science fiction novel, Under the Skin focuses on an extraterrestrial who lures men into her creepy white van (though when is a white van not creepy?). In the film, it is not entirely clear what happens to these men, but suffice it to say that most of them do not come to a good end. The filming of this movie is quite famous in that it was shot candid camera style. Many of the scenes contain actual people who have no idea that they are being recorded. Johansson would be driving around in a van or going out in public and would literally try to pick up men. (They would eventually be let in on the ruse, and they would sign releases permitting the filmmakers to use the footage of them.) This film inspired the now famous meme of Johansson tripping. Although it was an ungainly moment that seemed to capture briefly the humanity of a movie star, Johansson had the last laugh since that moment was actually devised specifically for the film, as a moment when her character feels unfiltered, genuine human empathy.
From afar, Under the Skin seems to follow a familiar sci-fi plot. The schlocky Species and Lifeforce resemble this movie, in which an alien with an attractive form seeks to take advantage of humanity for its survival. Or a film like E.T., in which an alien slowly starts to understand humanity and love it. Under the Skin differentiates itself from those films in that it is not concerned with the conventions of its so-called genre.
For one thing, the film has a deliberately low-key aesthetic. This is mostly due to its budget, but you would never know that from how masterfully Glazer and fellow music video collaborator Daniel Landin, the cinematographer shoot and stage the film. They create parallel universes just from strategic lighting and invisible set design. Mica Levi’s disorienting, almost-aleatory score is strangely beautiful and, more importantly, is almost inextricable from the film’s most striking scenes.
Also, in most science fiction horror even the really good ones, the “horror” comes from what the alien life forms do to humanity, in a gross or violent fashion usually. In this film, the horror comes from how profoundly the creature lacks humanity. Scarlett Johansson’s creature is horrifying not because of anything she does, but because of what she lacks - empathy. One of the most chilling scenes is when her creature is dragging a dead body and pays no heed to the infant whose parents have just drowned. Even though it is crying at the top of its lungs, she doesn’t even look to see where the source of the crying is coming from.
Under the Skin has great artistry and originality in spades, but the film ultimately depends on the star quality of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has always been a compelling movie star for me. She was the first actress I knew of who was my age. The sheer novelty of this at the time made me pay attention to her when she achieved more mainstream recognition in (ironically) Lost in Translation, an indie movie from Hollywood royalty. She had a cool poise that betrayed her youth, which was probably why she was usually cast as older than she was. Most actresses are known either for their starpower or their acting ability, but she is one of the few who is known equally for both.
It is important to focus on Johansson’s persona because Under the Skin depends on it, even for its very existence. According to Gemma Arterton, she was in serious consideration for the role, but the film needed a star for any chance of funding. It is curious then that Jonathan Glazer and the whole creative team (including Johansson herself) work so hard to strip Johansson of her natural charisma. The novel Under the Skin is made up of the narrator’s internal monologue, and much of the drama comes from the narrator’s wrestling with the role, the disguise, that she has assumed and what exactly is the purpose of the body that has been constructed specifically to lure men. That all women have some version of this conversation with themselves makes this novel more immediate and relevant than the science fiction plot would have you think.
In the film, however, there is no such monologue. Scarlett Johansson’s character is meant to be a cipher. She has no personality because she sees no need for one. At the beginning, we see a mysterious figure on a motorcycle carrying a dead woman into the van, and Johansson strips her of her clothes, believing that her personal transformation is complete. She observes an ant on the woman’s clothes dispassionately. To her, humans and ants have the same significance, as merely creatures for her to do with what she wills. Yet that extreme close-up of the ant signals a curiosity, a willingness to not merely observe but to learn.
Playing a cipher is challenging, especially for an actress of Scarlett Johansson’s stature, but I think she pulls it off. (Apparently, very few people actually recognized her when she would be out in the streets.) I think she and Glazer understood that her stardom is a role like any other and that she could easily slip it off and become invisible because she is that good of an actress. Also, even though she presents herself as a lure for men, we the viewers never feel that she is truly powerless. It is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that when she does appear nude in the film, she is not presented as an object of the male gaze. She carries herself as if she is simply wearing another skin, and her later exploration of the connotations and the power of her body beyond just luring men into her trap is a fascinating process.
This is in my mind, undoubtedly Johansson’s greatest performance, one that paradoxically depends on both her natural charisma as well as its absence. She can shock us with her callousness, yet she can also inspire sympathy because she makes us realize that she is just a creature and that we cannot judge her actions from a simple black and white moral dichotomy. In film criticism, we tend to put the emphasis on directors because of the influence of the auteur theory. There are certainly directors notorious for treating their actors as little more than props (Hitchcock, Kubrick). Film, however, has and always will be a collaborative project, and I would argue that this film would not have been as great as it is without Scarlett Johansson’s presence.