Not much is explained in Under The Skin. If you were to go in cold without having previewed arguably the best trailer of the past few years, you’d be forgiven for not understanding why all of this is happening. Though I’m sure it becomes clearer through repeated screenings, the film is so packed with dense material you’re almost commanded to catch the next screening.
Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, a name that I don’t remember being uttered. The rest of the cast – a mix of non-actors and unknown actors – appear nameless, without identity. (Check the iMDb page: Johansson is the only player with a name.) Men appear as non-entities, warm bodies that can walk and talk and do not much else. At their basest form they’re walking hard-on’s, eager to bed the beautiful driver with curly thick black hair. Laura cruises an unknown town of Scotland in a white van under the guise she’s transporting furniture for her family. She’s looking for these eager men, selecting them based presumably on how invisible they are: “Do you live alone?” is one of the questions she asks of them. Like any pick-up with a hint of sex, there’s little point in following it up if there’s talk of a family waiting at home for their arrival.
The reason she’s doing this isn’t immediately obvious but it’s because she’s an alien and human flesh is considered a delicacy for her species. Given she’s played by one of the most beautiful women on the planet, some men are obviously going to approach her first off. This happens on one occasion when she finds herself in a club after being forced to abort a mission to seduce a male target walking alone. A guy, a little tipsy, approaches her and begins to chat her up. She smiles; it’s almost too easy at this point.
What happens to these men is a stunning watch, as if you were perusing art at a gallery. (The entire film has this feel about it, excluding the basic two-shot setup in the van.) The men walk into a shabby house, the hint of sex ensuring they ignore the possible danger signs, and follow the figure of Laura casually undressing herself. A black featureless orb surrounds them (think of the white emptiness when Neo first enters the matrix). Dicks point to the sky; the men always follow Laura. Then the ground beneath becomes quicksand, hurriedly swallowing them whole. Later on we see what happens under the black surface: their bodies are removed of flesh and bone in a terrifying instant and the matter is transported back to whatever alien planet Laura comes from. It’s a moment that recalls the imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey but the film is hardly a Kubrick copy.
How Under the Skin proceeds from here is a marvel. Up to the shocking ending the film is warm in its limited space of Laura. She begins to crave knowledge that explains the actions of the species she is helping others eat. The crux of the film (perhaps) – a scene where she talks to a disfigured man whose face is marred by tumours – is poetic in its sincerity. We’re additionally presented a deconstructed understanding of the male gaze: a beautiful woman offering herself as a willing sex object to only reveal a hidden truth upon the act of carnation. Here, the standard lonely-man-seeking-woman-for-sex concept is flipped on its head. Director Jonathon Glazer avoids ultimate doom and gloom however and offers a few kind moments in the second half of the film that put her on the course of greater comprehension.
A quick summary of the film is alienation at its purest form but Glazer is smarter than that. I haven’t read the book and only knew the lone factoid regarding human flesh as delicacy going in. There’s existential moments of Laura observing human death at a beach in an extraordinary scene and via exploring her own intimacy as she disobeys her strict orders by a mute motorcyclist. At the end there’s a feeling the film comes full circle, the hint of more Laura’s being out there on Earth picking up men in white vans, but this is not important. It’s what men are capable of that’s on offer here. And that’s just one reading of the film.
In typical Glazer form, he’s delivered us one of the strangest films of the year, but it’s also one of the most exquisite films released in recent years. Do whatever you can to get a ticket.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Opens May 29 in limited release.