Released 2014. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay by Walter Campbell, based on “Under the Skin” by Michel Faber. Starring Scarlett Johansson.
Under the Skin is film of a type that is predictably disappointing. It’s beautiful, methodical and curious, and absolutely impenetrable. It’s of a type that is legitimised by people who express distaste for tentpole releases, saying that films shouldn’t tell simply tell the audience everything they have to offer; that as a viewer, I need to be putting in the work to extract meaning. Indeed, I agree with this. It’s the intensity with which that opinion is held that I find problematic, because it ends up allowing wilfully opaque films to evade criticism – it’s as though they’re so difficult to understand, they must be saying something meaningful, even though you haven’t a clue what it is. This is the case with Under the Skin, a film that is utterly unyielding to interpretation. The overall experience is frustrating, though enticing.
And it certainly is enticing. The opening few minutes are absorbing and fascinating, simple shapes and forms of light slowly moving and combining, set to an unnerving, pulsating soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is introduced as a naked figure bathed in pure white light, and indeed, her physical and facial beauty are part of what makes the film’s aesthetics such a pleasure. At times the camera luxuriates on her lips, her eyes, her legs (eating cake has never been so sexy, and I already thought it was really rather sexy indeed); at others the sight of Johansson, a world-famous symbol of unparalleled glamour and beauty, driving a van through crowded Glasgow streets is bizarre and enjoyable on its own terms. The film plays with a dissociation between two worlds: its setting in Scotland, often barely more cinematic than a TV documentary, and an artfully constructed world of slow movement, infinite voids and nightmarish surprises. The tactile, intricate sound design, including the aforementioned soundtrack, allows the latter to bleed slightly into the former, making the introductory half hour of the film unsettling and intriguing. What is happening – Johansson, apparently naive but in truth specious, picking up men and seducing them into submerging themselves into a deep pool – is extraordinarily weird and rather exciting, but the film offers little by way of explanation for this and subsequent events, and starts to feel indulgent, even selfish.
It’s tough to phrase this without sounding like I simply wasn’t paying attention, but when you have to read a plot synopsis after seeing a film to find out if there’s meant to be a concrete explanation of what was happening, that cannot be construed as a cinematic success. The lack of clarity to Under the Skin is harmful because it makes the film impossible to interpret in any meaningful way; not being able to determine whether a given image is meant to be ‘real’ or metaphorical, for instance, is distracting and confusing. This is certainly up for debate – and I haven’t discounted the possibility that I’m a bit thick – but I’d argue that the events it depicts are abstracted to the point where attempting to work out what’s going on amounts to little more than guesswork. Figuring out what it’s trying to explore thematically is near-futile: it certainly has a fixation on beauty and an interest in body image, and there might be something to an interpretation that focuses on sexual assault, but not being clear on what the film is seeking to discuss makes searching for answers pointless. I find myself reaching for those four words that inspire in me nothing but shame: ‘I don’t get it’.
It’s tricky to determine how much of the blame lies with the film, and how much with me. Upstream Color, for instance, is a film I found extremely challenging to find my way into until a conversation with a friend who had been deeply affected by it gave me some interpretive tools. Perhaps Under the Skin is similar, and I just haven’t found the right person to talk to about it. It may yield greater substance on a second viewing, but I do feel frustrated that it should need one; that most of the blame rests on me. I want to understand every film I see, I’m excited and optimistic each and every time I visit the cinema, and it’s upsetting, even angering, to find that optimism blocked by a film that won’t play nice. Under the Skin, while not quite hostile to its audience, certainly appears to ignore it. I’m sure there is something under the skin of Under the Skin, but its skin is far too thick.