Under the Skin: Scarlett Johansson as Mystery, Alluring Woman

The visionary director Jonathan Glazer likes to take his time.  By Hollywood (and U.K) standards, he is slow.  After making a splashy debut in 2000 with “Sexy Beast,” which offered a vastly different role for Ben Kingsley, it took four years for Glazer’s second film, “Birth,” starring Nicole Kidman.

Now, nine years later, he has made another striking and original feature, “Under the Skin,” based on Michel Faber’s famous 2000 novel, “The Crimson Petal and the White.”  The strange, twisted, dark source material, adapted to the screen by Glazer and Wlater Campbell, is most suitable for the director’s offbeat and idiosyncratic sensibility.

Like other independently-minded director, Glazer’s work depends on the festival and art house circuits.  Under the Skin played at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests.

Scarlett Johansson, who may be one of the busiest actress in Hollywood right now, plays a mysterious, voluptuous woman—sort of “the women who fell down to earth,” in this existential tale about sexual politics and other philosophical matters.  “Under the Skin” is visually arresting and intellectually demanding, film, raising some provocative questions without the burden or responsibility to resolve them.

Critics who have only praised the film’s visual properties, which are admittedly impressive, are missing the point of a film that’s richly dense in text and subtext, and replete with ambiguous meanings.  In other words, “Under the Skin” is not just a bizarre or a curio item—it’s much more ambitious than that.

The film is quiet yet dark, sinister, and challenging from the first scene, nocturnal scene, in which a motorcycle is seen speeding and a body being picked up. In an all-white room, a nude woman then undresses that body and puts on her clothes.

As soon as she lands, she asks for directions.  She drives a white van, she cruises around Glasgow, Scotland, stopping to speak to various men.  Some of the men who follow her suddenly find themselves before sinking and disappearing.

On the beach, the woman observes a man trying to swim into rough waters, while his baby waits for him. The alien woman then clobbers another man who’s tried to save the swimmer as the baby cries.  Is she utterly lacking empathy? No sense of decency and humanity?

The next man she woman picks up transforms himself, which is followed by an encounter with yet another guy, who looks like the Elephant Man.  As the tale unfolds, the woman becomes more passive and more vulnerable, but the writers only describe these processes of transformation (perhaps even radical transfiguration), without explaining their reasoning.

In general, “Under the Skin” is not a conventional feature, relying on exposition, psychology, or motivation, but there is enough in it to stimulate the mind and provoke some strong feelings, largely due to Glazer’s astute mise-en-scene and striking imagery.

Made to look as plain and ordinary, as she ever has been onscreen, Scarlett Johansson offers a multi-nuanced performance in a tough and demanding roles that often depends on subtle gestures and moves rather than words and dialogue.

Credits

Production: Nick Wechsler Productions, JW Films
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriters: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Producers: James Wilson, Nick Wechsler
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Reno Antoniades, Walter Campbell, Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Florian Dargel
Director of photography: Daniel Landin
Production designer: Chris Oddy
Costume designer: Steven Noble
Editor: Paul Watts
Music: Mica Levi

Running time: 107 Minutes