We owe Hans Christian Andersen on this one. Big time. His clairvoyant review of “Under the Skin” appeared in 1837, 187 years before the movie.
It was a fairy tale called “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which the Emperor, in fact, isn’t wearing clothes at all. People said he was dressed in the latest finery but a little boy looked at him and knew different. He was stark raving nude.
Well, the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes here. Critics can line up from here to Ranchipur calling the film a visionary masterpiece all they want. If it weren’t for so many scenes of Scarlett Johansson wearing no clothes, you wouldn’t be reading any of the breathless praise.
It’s gorgeous, visionary and, aside from the undeniably arresting epidermal display, it’s close to a complete waste of time. Let those who want to sing hosannas to the Emperor do so. For all the supposed finery of his new wardrobe, we kids know when the credulous dumb cluck isn’t wearing a stitch.
While we’re on the subject of critics, by the way, I wouldn’t be too hard on the poor folks. Even the ones aiding and abetting the Big Con about this movie are telling you something about the film you wouldn’t likely know from watching the film.
The film is, in fact, the story of a beautiful space alien played by Johansson who drives a van through Scotland, picks up horny single men and then dispatches them by drowning them in a pool of inky goo they somehow hadn’t noticed before. Maybe that’s because she’s somehow able to walk over its surface.
Don’t ask how. Haven’t the foggiest.
It’s the “space alien” part that isn’t clear from the movie. Some abstract imagery in the first five minutes seems to suggest it, but it’s by no means explicit enough to give everyone a running chance at having the slightest clue what’s going on here, just from what’s on the screen. It is, then, up to your friendly neighborhood critic to clue you in on what the devil is going on.
Which we’re all trying to do to the degree we can (which after that basic fact – Johansson seducing and killing a bunch of horny Scotsmen – isn’t much. It translates mostly to “lots of luck figuring it out.”)
Johansson does it all in cheap, grubby clothes and a wig after removing the wig and apparel of a corpse brought to her by a silent male accomplice. He’s a sort of “E.T.” man-in-waiting on a motorcycle. Before she puts on the dead woman’s clothes, a silhouetted Johansson is quite fetchingly in the altogether.
After bewitching and doing in a few guys, our alien with the arachnid morality (at one point, she leaves a baby to die on a beach) is taken in by a sympathetic man. She attempts human sex of which she’s clearly not at all fond, once she’s barely into it.
Rape and calamity await her.
To give credit where it’s due, director Jonathan Glazer filmed all of this hypnotically. Simply as a succession of cinematic images, it’s often quite beautiful. Glazer is the director of Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast” and Nicole Kidman in “Birth.” He knows a thing or two about what to do with a camera.
The movie – and Michel Faber’s quite different original novel – obsessed him for a decade, it’s said.
I believe it. “Under the Skin” looks like a film that was made by obsessives so deeply and minutely involved in it that, in the dweebiest fashion, they forgot completely that they had to convey the reason for their obsession to an ignorant audience.
Which is to say it’s all beautiful and occasionally hypnotic hooey. There’s a story here but one so obscure in its particulars and its motivations that it’s scarcely a story at all. In comparison, David Lynch’s and David Cronenberg’s movies are downright Dickensian.
If it’s not actually a causal narrative, it’s not really a long poem either. It’s more like a few disembodied stanzas from a long poem only glancingly held together.
When we get to the final calamity, I suddenly got the impression there may have been some sort of extraterrestrial fable about race and color going on here (“Under the Skin,” right?) but this movie’s answer to me is more like “oh, yeah? Is that what you think? Well, who cares? Figure it out for yourself.”
Or not. Your choice.
It’s not a film you’ll forget, that’s true.
Unfortunately, you may very well want to after seeing it.
I suppose it signifies ambition and independent thinking on a willing Johansson’s part, both of which in actresses ought to be applauded by high-minded movie lovers.
Consider this the sound of one hand clapping.
under the skin
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Mackay
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.
The Lowdown: A beautiful, scruffily dressed space alien drives through Scotland picking up men and killing them.