Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin has received positive reviews for the cinematography as well as the sense of unease throughout, particularly when we realize how the Female feeds.  As stunning as the cinematography and atmosphere in the movie is, and some of the non-traditional approaches director Jonathan Glazer takes in bringing the story to the screen, it would be an almost forgotten film except for one thing.

American actress Scarlett Johansson is one of those celebrities it's impossible to avoid.  She has never annoyed me as much as Angelina Jolie or Julia Roberts, but she is still the same kind of Hollywood beautiful that the public is told they have to like.  She is attractive and, unlike many of her peers, quite intelligent and talented in things other than looking good for the camera.  She has also been careful to keep control of how her sex appeal is marketed and, for that reason, Under the Skin is known to most as the movie where Johansson went nude.  Not topless, but full-frontal nudity, and Glaser's camera tends to focus quite heavily on that in a number of scenes.

Unlike in the past when a major actress decided to do nude scenes for artistic reasons or in a desperate attempt to reignite her career, there is a thing called the internet.  If the actress is serious about her art this can be detrimental as the nude scenes inevitably end up being passed around a number of sketchy sites.  This has happened to the screen captures from Under the Skin, as well as from Jennifer Lawrence's recent comedy No Hard Feelings, in which she, for comedic reasons, goes full-frontal for a fight scene.  The other problem is that there are a number of movies, such as Brown Bunny, where a particular scene makes the movie famous, but there is no other reason to see the rest of the film.  The internet in many ways saves the merely curious from having to sit through a terrible movie.  

If one has to sit through an awful film just to get a few thrills from the nudity that says more about that person than it says about the film, and the fact that this is still the focus of many reviews of such films even if they are good films says a lot about how, as liberal as they claim to be, Hollywood and the typical critical circles are still just as sexist as ever or, even worse, bring it up just to prove they are not.  This is a long-winded way of me saying that if one is desperate to see Scarlett Johansson naked there are plenty of sites that will show screen captures from this film and satisfy that need.  If, on the other hand, one is interested in some sort of context or reason why an actress at the top of her career would take that chance or do a small film such as this one, then there may be some rewards to watching Glazer's film.

The Female (Johansson) drives around Glasgow and surrounding areas of Scotland in an attempt to lure men into her van.  She is careful about who she picks, often making sure that they do not have families nor would be missed.  Once she takes them back to her isolated cottage they are captured and digested in a black liquid in order to provide her nourishment.  She is often followed by a mysterious man on a motorcycle (Jeremy McWilliams) that cleans up after her and makes sure there are no witnesses. 

Eventually she picks up a man with severe facial deformities (Adam Pearson).  Being alien, and so not seeing attractiveness in the way humans do, she finds him interesting, leading to her first human connection.  She soon goes out to see more of the world around her, eventually meeting a man who she falls in love with.  Problem is the suit of skin she is wearing - that she has become fond of - has limitations.  With her empathizing with what had been her source of food and realizing she can never fit in she attempts to find a place that she can be safe while her guardians begin to search for her. 

Under the Skin is beautifully shot and I admire Glazer for using non-actors in many of the male roles.  The majority of the men that were picked up were enticed in the way the Female hunted, with them being filmed inside the van and later informed that they were in a movie.  Adam Pearson was one of the few specifically cast to play one of the victims.  I also like how the nudity is not the typical male gaze, but from that of someone realizing what their body actually is after being psychologically disconnected from it. 

Where the book seemed to be concerned about a number of things, including runaway capitalism and factory farming, the film version of Under the Skin works at subverting gender roles.  The Female is everything a male predator is usually thought as, right down to the creepy van.  She doesn't go after guys that are bad, just ones that won't be missed.  Until she begins to connect she has no feelings toward humans other than as livestock.  

The main difficulty is that the film moves at a snail's pace.  From what I read in the summary of the book the alien has an actual name, a stated purpose and there is a central plot driving things.  In both a key turning point is identifying with the victims, and in the film it is approached in subtle ways.  The problem is that Glazer decided to forego much of the book, padding out the movie with random shots of crowds and repeated scenes of Johansson driving around Scotland and meeting people.  The point where she begins to change is where the movie improves.  The first two thirds, other than the scenes of her feeding, are almost unbearable.

This leads to a difficult film to recommend as it would have worked better as a much shorter movie or a more faithful adaptation of the novel.  From what I understand about the book it would not have taken a huge budget to do so.  Under the Skin still cost a fair amount of money for an independent film and took years to get made.  It feels like one is experiencing all those years while watching it and, despite the movie as a whole being great to look at, it is tough going. 

Under the Skin (2013)
Time: 108 minutes
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams
Director: Jonathan Glazer



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