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Johansson Gets Under our Skin

“Do you think I’m pretty?” she says to a bystander.

Courtesy of Jonathan Wilson and Nick Wechsler
Courtesy of Jonathan Wilson and Nick Wechsler

“I think you’re gorgeous.”

It’s no mystery that Scarlett Johansson has been typecast in the role of sexy seductress multiple times throughout her acting career. However her latest performance in the erotic science fiction film, “Under the Skin,” manages to transcend that archetype into a more novel construct, and is also one of many achievements in this breathtakingly visceral work of art.

Straying from the conventional structure of a straightforward narrative, “Under the Skin” follows more along the lines of a complex character study, where Johansson plays an alien in human skin living in Scotland. Usually we would reveal more than that, but this is a film that demands to be seen without any prior knowledge, because its many hidden mysteries are sure to shock audience members, which enhances the unique experience it creates largely from its intriguing visuals.

The visuals take over, and each angle is a work of art in its own right, forcing the viewer to piece the story together. Still, very little is explained. Why has she come to Scotland to kill innocent people, and where did she come from? These things however, become less important as the film progresses, and the audience is left with the most important unanswered questions of all — what does it mean to be human and what is actually underneath our skin?

Johansson, in her black wig and perfect London accent, creates a bold and unforgettable character. Traveling through Scotland in a white van and using her otherworldly beauty to lure men into her vehicle with a discrete promise of sex, Johannson conveys a lot without saying much — a trend with the entire film, which contains little dialogue.

Behind the camera, director Jonathan Glazer displays expert craftsmanship in conveying a picture-perfect, surreal atmosphere of an alien’s journey through various areas of Scotland. His style clearly echoes the influence of Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg amongst other surrealist directors, and even with only two films under his credit (2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2004’s “Birth”), he has demonstrated a strong ability to sift his way through the most eclectic subject material, and “Under the Skin” is the epitome of that approach.

The opening sequence is stylized in the vein of a shot from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, however Glazer executes it in a fashion that is fresh enough to set itself apart. Gorgeous long shots are also heavily utilized to communicate the eerie atmosphere of Scotland’s most desolate locations, which additionally correlate to the loneliness prevalent in Johansson’s character. Nonetheless, the cinematography is magnificent in terms of both selling the film’s atmosphere, and subjective point-of-view of the lead alien. Glazer often makes use of voyeuristic angles that create the illusion of following Johansson’s character, and works vice versa for the people she confronts, too.

The score, composed by British musician Micachu, made each scene especially eerie and mysterious and served the often-disturbing imagery on screen well. The music also enhanced the film’s slow pace — as is the case with several Kubrick films, scenes in “Under the Skin” go for several minutes without much activity, yet never become dull. Further, any time that a violin is incorporated into a composition, it sends an instant shiver up one’s spine.

As the film continues, and Johansson’s beautiful expressionless face haunts the screen, her character and the audience question the true purpose of her time on Earth. She feels no pain. She cannot eat or drink. She cannot love. This calls to attention the overarching theme — that much more than what makes up an individual’s appearance dictates how we behave.

“Under the Skin” is certainly one of the best films to have released so far this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Its abundant supply of eroticism and surreal imagery will result in polarized reactions, but if it’s elements like these that please you, the rest of the film should be right up your alley. Like a metaphorical hybrid of Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and David Lynch on more meth than their films were already on, “Under the Skin” is a definitive experience for the independent crowd.


RECOMMENDED: It doesn’t apply to any mainstream conventions, but “Under the Skin” is an enthralling experience for the indie crowd.