Scarlett Inside Of Scarlett
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Under the Skin
dir. Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin uses a lot of non-actors from the Scotland in which its Stranger in a Strange Land-story is set, filming by a hidden camera on the dashboard of a van. None of them imagine that Scarlett Johansson is anything but a confused American, and a very poor driver. In their thick Scottish accents you can barely make out what they are saying even if you knew what driving directions they were conveying to her. The joke is that they are both aliens to each other.
In this third film by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) Scarlett is supposed to be an alien, though. Despite the fact that her exaggerated features and pin-up body have made her look inhuman in comparison to her fellow actors for almost a decade, Under the Skin tones back that otherworldiness throughout.
Instead, it is supposed to be Ms. Johansson's awkward, mannered gestures that suggest she is not from Earth. This succeeds about as well as you would expect while a swirling, faux-Kubrickian cinematography tries to obscur Scarlett's utterly human sexual presence.
Scarlett is not the only alien in Scotland. There is also a motorcycle-riding alien is who is a bit suspicious of the positive inroads Scarlett seems to be making in the Edinburgh comunity. Like Scarlett, this speedier iteration murders human beings for their carapaces, seeming to find as much pleasure in his own shell as he does in dissecting theirs. In Under the Skin, death is not the end for the bodies the aliens discover and appropriate for themselves.
Scarlett eventually meets up with a creature as bizarre as herself – a man with severe facial bloating and scarring. She tells the elephant man that he has wonderful hands, although it unclear why she would offer such a compliment. The music becomes seriously wacky as they touch and the elephant man shows her his dick. Taking the joy out of watching Scarlett Johanssen walk backwards nude is an impressive achievement.
For some unknown reason the grotesque man's plight affects her, even though it is hard to believe she has any concept of beauty, despite being extremely humanoid in her actual form:
In the film's opening scene, she delicately picks an ant off a body she stripped for its clothes. None of her human movements come across as the slightest bit unnatural, and this last gesture seems almost too familiar. Like the rest of Under the Skin's symbols, the ant parallel is so facile it doesn't really hold up under interrogation. Whatever point the film is making about how real people react to a beautiful woman is subsumed by how staged it feels that Scarlett is involved. The thing you really need to keep in mind is this: Scarlett is not one of us, and she never will be.
Disoriented by encounters with human beings where they don't want to kill her or put her on the cover of their magazine, Scarlett attempts to approximate humanity by eating cake and sampling physical love. Further disturbed, she flees into the woods where rapists live. One particularly goofy criminal tries to have his way with her. He screams, "Black Widow!!!" and attempts to enjoy the horrific act, but he only ends up tearing her skin as she flees. Frightened by her actual shape, he douses her with kerosene and burns her body.
By that point we are somewhat tired of looking at Scarlett, as the director clearly enjoys her form more than is healthy. To make Scarlett's body such a centerpiece betrays a love of that voluptuous shape. In Under the Skin each individuated part of her body always seems to be pleasantly extruding in every direction. Unfortunately, there is nothing subtle or transcendant about her physicality; the only advantage it offers is constant presence.
This makes it very difficult for her to carry off the role of an alien, especially since that curvy physique is so familiar to us anyway. It is not supposed to be fun to watch her, so when it is, we feel uneasy. That effect, at least, is unique.
Under the Skin does the best it can to distract from this unsettling contradiction – Glazer's manipulative camera tricks are satisfying at first, but exhausting taken in total. It is a serious achievement that we want so badly to avert our eyes from this situation, creating a moral dilemma for ourselves that rarely exists in cinema. Under the Skin's anguished unfolding, stepping on a thin line between pain and wonder, exemplifies the reason it is rare.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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