Scarlett Johansson is an Alien Seductress in ‘Under the Skin’
My advice is, don’t arrive late for Lost in Translation, or you’ll miss what most men dutifully forked over the price of admission for. The first thing we see is Scarlett Johansson’s rear end, laid sideways on a bed, the full, unhindered view of it only just sheathed, hurtfully, by the thinnest pink underpants known to man, in an overt act of provocation against man. Come now to the new movie Under the Skin, and what do we have? Scarlett Johansson’s behind, in a scene where she struts through a mall in tight jeans, the camera trailing her at an eye level so low there is no mistaking what we are made to gawk at. What has Johansson done to deserve this?
The same question can be asked of all movie stars. Fame really is a pain. Professional celebrities, those gods among us (to borrow from the title of Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr’s zesty history of stardom), are made to slip into a new skin for every new role, all the while exhibiting their bodies before us and staging their most private and vulnerable emotions, all in the name of enticing us into a dark room for a couple of hours. And we don’t leave it at that, either. Once we get out into the real world, we continue to follow their every step, hounding them everywhere. It’s no way to live.
Burr’s book, a survey “on movie stardom and modern fame,” as the subtitle put it, was such a welcomed entry because performance is often the least discussed part of cinema. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote recently in an essay, critics always talk too much about plot and not enough about the mise-en-scène, the camera placements, and the rest of the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling. But there’s even less quality analysis of acting, of what makes a performance work and what doesn’t. We say someone’s turn was “powerful” or “disappointing,” but really not much else. It’s the hardest thing to do in film criticism. Writing on stars are mostly about gossip and scandal, a degeneration into lifestyle reporting.
Far be it for critics to rise to the challenge, so artists took over the discussion, which thankfully is how we came to behold the glory of something like Leo Carax’s 2012 masterpiece Holy Motors, an exuberant but elegiac celebration of and comment on cinematic performance. What is filmmaking except the projection of a director’s art onto an actor, and an actor in turn projecting his performance into the viewer’s mind? What is a film projector except a holy motor, if you will? Holy Motors is a tribute to the malleable, soulful beings that make films possible, and make Carax’s works so incredible. One person, in particular—the intense and intelligent Denis Lavant, a beast of an actor, where in Holy Motors he plays a man who is escorted in a limousine—another one of the holy motors of the title, outdated and outmoded like cinema itself—to various appointments, in which he takes on many roles: an old beggar woman, a motion-capture actor, a Chinese gangster, a father, a dying uncle, and more. Here is a theme and variation on performance in, by my count, nine movements, complete with a prelude, a vigorous accordion interlude (or intermission), and a coda.
There is much to talk about and books to be written on Holy Motors, but let us now welcome the latest consideration of the subject of performance. Under the Skin, from director Jonathan Glazer, of Sexy Beast fame, is another well-chosen, persona-soaked title, though it simply derives from the debut novel of the same name, about an alien in female form who drives around the streets of Scotland looking for men to seduce and take back to a house, where she butchers and liquidates her victims into a type of meat to be sent back to the starving inhabitants of her home planet. Michael Faber’s book is a darkly funny political satire on the food industry, and I can scarcely put it better than Publishers Weekly, who said it resembled “something animal rights extremists might have cooked up after watching Soylent Green.”
Thankfully Glazer peeled off from the source material—he told me that his co-writer Walter Campbell never even read the book. He simply took off into a visionary territory, where few not named Nicolas Roeg or Stanley Kubrick dare to go. Hence the opening sequence, where cosmic clouds thrash about a void, and out of this stardust an iris and a pupil take form. Here in one flourish we get a nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange’s eyeball torture, a dead Janet Leigh’s iris in Psycho, the razor slicing the cornea in Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, the bloody shot on the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin, and the opening prelude to Bergman’s Persona—in other words, some of the most famous shots in cinema, and the first warning that this will be a film about film. After all, what do we watch movies with? What is a camera but an eye?
And this is how we arrive at the lovely conceit of Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress. Here is an otherworldly being that takes human form (judging that it is in the form of Johansson, we can safely assume that she fell to Earth from the stars) and struts into a mall looking for a sweater, where she curiously observes makeup girls applying new faces on their customers. Here are the two primary mechanisms of cinema: the camera looking and recording, and the actor embodying personas and performing behind masks. Glazer tells me that he sees the project as a metaphor for looking, of an alien watching and learning. Not surprising, this coming from a director, and it’s a good idea, but Glazer scarcely begins to pull it off before he sacrifices the depth that’s required to really explore how the alien might learn in favor of visual splash. So, to denote the birth of the alien’s curiosity, we see her studying an ant that’s crawling over her hand, as she stands in silhouette in a bright space. Look at the same scene from the angle of a performer being scrutinized, and Johansson becomes, like the ant, a specimen being observed by us over a giant light box. It is a no brainer which of the two mechanisms I would view the film through.
To do her job, the alien drives around in a white van and goes looking for men to ensnare. The choice of the van, traditionally considered a vehicle for trapping women, amusingly turns the convention on its head. If not a woman, at least now there’s an alien in a woman’s skin being the predator, and the men are the hapless prey. How do you like that, boys?
So Johansson cruises around town—the town being Glasgow, Scotland—and rolls down the window to ask solitary men for directions. The thing is, it is Johansson herself striking up conversations with strangers. They are not actors, but real unsuspecting men, most of whom sport such heavy Scottish accents that to my ears they might as well be speaking alien, and most of whom couldn’t in fact recognize the world’s most sultry celebrity. Why would they? On what planet would Scarlett Johansson ask me the question: “Do you want a lift?” “Yeah, why not!” one replied. I’ll tell you why not—you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Some get in the van; some don’t. The ones who do have their interaction filmed using miniature cameras. (They wouldn’t know they were filmed until they were notified afterwards, Candid Camera-style. Co-writer Walter Campbell said that all the men signed the release form, but Glazer independently told me he lost some great footage when a few of the men wouldn’t sign.) We are back to the looking metaphor, with a heavy dose of reality-show voyeurism added in, and a little of Kiarostami’s Ten sprinkled in. “Do you think I’m pretty?” the alien asks at one point. As if you needed to. Hey, Alien, consider this a peace offering from us. You’ve graduated from a phallic headgear, proboscis, and corrosive blood to the body of Scar Jo. You don’t need any more reassurance.
But if you were to answer, “Yes,” and you fall for Johansson’s seduction and follow her home, you’ll find yourself being led into a borderless dark space. One of the blokes swaggers into this black cavern wearing a green Hibernian Edinburgh jersey, looking like a footie leprechaun; another shimmies and dances as he takes his shirt off. Johansson begins to undress, too, but while she keeps walking, you sink into a liquid prison. Turns out, the men are suspended in fluid, waiting to decay like Damien Hirst’s shark. In the formaldehyde vitrine, the shirtless dancer meets a fellow prey. As he reaches to touch him, the man shrivels in a couple of quick thrusts; then in one go his flesh dissolves and his entire being is sucked from his skin, which floats around like a deep sea creature.
At which point it becomes clear that we have entered a minimalist, bloodless horror movie. The visual imagination is gauntly beautiful, but none of it feels particularly terrifying. Glazer, like Nicolas Roeg before him, is a streamlined visionary, doing away with all that’s not absolutely essential. The result, like Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie as an androgynous alien, can be clinically gorgeous. But, just as it were with The Man Who Fell to Earth, emptiness sets in, and the movie can start to feel like it was made in a highly controlled laboratory—horror in a petri dish, in other words, an experimental experiment (with a Kubrickian score by Mica Levi).
Under the Skin is better when it actually gets under the skin and fosters real human connectedness, good or bad, as when Johansson makes conversation with a man with a disfigured face, or when a mob of thugs attack the van and she drives away, a wee bit shaken up. There is something to the shots, picked up ostensibly by the alien’s camera eye, of ordinary Scottish people on phones, waiting to cross the street, sitting on benches, or meeting friends for a drink—something human to counterbalance the dispassionate alien conceit.
The scenes with the man with the disfigured face are the best thing in Under the Skin, a genuinely loving psychological portrait and a hinge in the plot, which engenders in the alien a sense of empathy and doubt in her mission. So she quits, and takes shelter in the northern Scotland woods, hoping to be left alone. No luck there, as predator becomes prey, and there’s no escape from the sexual aggression of men. The alien is simply too good at her job of seducing men—of getting them off the streets and into a dark room, promising kiss kiss bang bang. Is there a better metaphor for movie-going? And is there a better metaphor for disillusionment with stardom, of wanting to get away from it all, yet still pursued by mobs, by men who want to touch a symbol of angelic beauty?
I’m not sure Under the Skin would have held together at all without Johansson, whose fraught relationship with stardom perfectly fuels the engine of this role. From Ghost World to Lost in Translation, you acquired the sense that she never seemed quite natural in her skin, as if that husky voice shouldn’t come out of those pouty lips, or that she wandered into the wrong movie set, too pretty for the usual anthropological study of manners. She’s in superhero movies, but she also known to sing honey-rasped Tom Waits covers. One moment she’s an ambassador for Oxfam, another she’s scandalized for being a brand ambassador for Israeli company SodaStream, which has factories in occupied settlements. She’s the current reincarnation of Hollywood glamor, of persona whipped into myth, celebrity, and impenetrable gloss. She is the alien life form too good at seduction.
But even a screen goddess has to take off her mask, and so we end the film with the alien shedding her skin and looking at her own face. It’s a shot inevitably wrought with poetry, but in the end, I wonder if this film is too poetic for its own good, too beautiful to actually get under your skin. As they say, beauty’s only skin deep.