[108 minutes. R. Director: Jonathan Glazer]
And, for the most part, no coherent dialog.
UNDER THE SKIN starts with a subtle yet potent visual punch: the progress of a pinhole of light, passing through unknown spheres, before settling into place as the iris of a girl’s eye.
The girl is Laura (Scarlett Johansson). Undeniably attractive and sporting a breathy English accent, she drives around Scotland, soliciting wayward hitchhikers for sex.
Is there more to SKIN than that? The answer is yes, no, and…I don’t know.
It’s an idiosyncratic film, sporting elements of sci-fi, horror, drama, and even romance with fearless disregard for satisfying any particular genre convention. The imagery is simultaneously wonderful, terrible, and unsettling.
Like the best efforts of David Lynch, there are extended sequences in SKIN that pull you into its ambiguous undertow.
Much of the film is shot with either natural light or minimal light, leading to a literal dark experience that reflects the murky, ambivalent tone. When Laura lures (wait a second…) men into her lair, it’s a black backdrop that suspends both characters in space, until one begins to sink beneath. This could be considered a metaphor for the black-widow female, if Glazer didn’t proceed to include a scene where things are seen from the victim’s perspective (even then, it’s a prime “what-the-fuck” moment).
A man on a motorcycle pursues Laura. Is he some sort of spirit guide? A patriarch keeping a close eye on a particularly precocious child? Or the intermediary between her activities on Earth and the signals being trasmitted from the Mothership? Glazer presents Laura’s oversized van as an unfamiliar vessel, humming with strange ambient sounds and imposing features.
Like ERASERHEAD, the sound design is jarring and unsettling, and gives the film much of its distinctive feel. Most of the dialog is indecipherable (the thick Scottish accents don’t come with subtitles). Little obvious attempt is made to “clean up” the sounds of, say, traffic noise or the conversation between two people in a noisy dance club.
SKIN also recalls genre films from all ends of the quality spectrum to sample in its tapestry of strangeness: it has XTRO’s perverse perspective on abnormal sexuality (indeed, the film’s copious –and mostly male – nudity is anything but prurient); SPECIES, in its presentation of an otherworldly predator in female form; and even THE SHINING, in its depiction of a flood of viscera – a direct homage to the blood-gushing elevators in the Overlook Hotel (furthermore, Glazer’s tendency to hold a shot for a few beats too long also recalls Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous aesthetic). Beyond ERASERHEAD, the film introduces a character that’s a dead ringer for John Merrick in Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN. And the notion of men being led to their deaths by – quite literally – their erect penises, recalls the “libido = death” equation that drove/drives the last act of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978).
The film has its problems. In its presentation of a character preying on men through sex, the presentation of males preying on one-dimensional stereotypes (including – but not limited to – the notion that all men are interested in is sex through any means necessary). Similar sentiments could be attached to Laura, who is not developed (in any conventional way, at least) beyond her status as a vessel for lustful desires. That being said, SKIN’s minimalism allows a myriad of thoughts and emotions to break through its seemingly impenetrable surface; when Laura meets a Samaritan who provides her with food and shelter, the film’s sexuality takes a different – but no less ambiguous – course.
Therein lies the paradox – if UNDER THE SKIN is capable of turning its seeming detriments into points of thought-provoking contention, it’s clearly doing its job as a work of art. There is much to muddle through and mull over, but for those who are up to the challenge, it’s worth it. Glazer must be commended for leaving out the moments of exposition that would make mainstream filmgoers cheer, and art-house viewers groan.
4 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb is a proud prole in service to that Orwellian nightmare known as State Government. He writes movie reviews at: numbviews.livejournal.com. Also find him on Twitter @JonnyNumb and Letterboxd – username Jonny Numb.
(Photo from Dread Central.)