With the plethora of Really Big Science Fiction Movies lately, it’s quite likely this little gem slipped below the radar for a lot of people. There are no giant starships, no armadas of aliens, no galactic panoramas: just what appears to be a woman (played with immense courage by Scarlett Johannson) driving a nondescript white van across Scotland picking up lone men and — well, doing something weirdly fatal to them.
Directed by Johnathan Glazer, the film is stately, beautifully shot, and wonderfully understated. It would also be very difficult to review if I was worried about spoiling the central conceit — that Johannson’s character (we’ll call her The Girl, because she never gets a name) is some kind of alien creature or construct, preying on human men for reasons to which we are never made privy. Fortunately, the quality of the film itself makes any such spoilers trivial: it is apparent from the opening credits that things are not what they seem, and Johannson’s remarkable performance as The Girl makes it clear from the outset that she is somehow other than human.
Johannson’s performance is the central pillar of this film, and it is very hard to fault. In essence, her story is one of birth and death. She begins the film as a skilled seducer, using her sexuality and human social tropes to entrap lonely men to their doom. Yet as the film moves along, we see her ‘victims’ get closer and closer to making contact with her, until one of them (an actor by the name of Adam Pearson, with neurofibromatosis) actually touches her — and escapes, unconsumed.
From that point, Johannson’s “Girl” is no longer the predator, but a confused creature discovering some kind of identity, if not humanity. Watching her clumsily, haltingly negotiate her way amongst real humans is fascinating. The extended nude sequence in which she simply investigates her own body in a mirror — for a Hollywood A-lister like Johannson, this really must rate as one of the bravest pieces of cinema in a long time.
There are layers and ideas within this film. It’s small-scale, thoughtful science fiction. I was startled and deeply unhappy to discover that it didn’t recover it’s trifling $13.3 million dollar budget at the box office: it deserves much more. Glazer’s excellent direction alone would be enough to make the film a standout. He uses wintry Scotland to tremendous effect, pitting The Girl now against sweeping landscapes, now against decaying urban backdrops, always alone even when in company.
It was shot in daring fashion: for much of the ‘predatory’ period, Johannson actually did drive around Scotland in a van loaded with hidden cameras, conversing with and picking up random men. And the casting of Pearson — even when Lynch shot The Elephant Man (about John Merrick, history’s most famous victim of neurofibromatosis) he relied on tonnes of make-up and the powerful talents of John Hurt to carry it off. Pearson, however, is perfect: watching The Girl practice her seduction routine in a manner which makes it clear that she is completely oblivious to his deformities heightens the “alienness” of her to a degree which is eerie.
Overall, the film falls somewhere between science fiction, horror, and art-house — but unlike most multi-genre pieces, it doesn’t bring out the worst of each. The otherworldly score from Mica Levi is as effective and understated as Glazer’s direction, lifting the emotional impact of the film and adding a real sense of menace. This is a film which has been made properly: the script is spare and simple, provoking more questions than it answers while still providing a strong central narrative which concludes in an effective and profoundly affecting fashion — something which “arthouse” directors frequently fail to offer. (Yeah. I’m looking at you, David Lynch. Next time you make a film, try to ensure you actually have a story first, would you?)
There’s a great deal more to say about this work. A feminist reading of The Girl’s arc would be fascinating, for example: beginning as a deft seducer and predator who is utterly devoid of real emotion or feeling, she gradually discovers elements of her own identity (and its physical, inbuilt limitations) and as her interactions with men become more real and meaningful, she eventually becomes a victim of the very thing upon which she once preyed. It is a thought-provoking, visually excellent film supported by a standout performance from a woman prepared to throw off much of Hollywood’s gloss to reach for something far deeper — and I enjoyed it greatly. I am definitely going to pick up a copy of the novel (written in 2000 by Michel Faber) to see if I can get deeper Under The Skin…