Scarlett Johansson is the woman who fell to Earth in Jonathan Glazer's fascinating follow-up to Birth.
Another international film festival, another chorus of unnecessary booing directed at a film which dares to explore the cinematic terrain that hasn't yet been charted on any conventional map. Jonathan Glazer's quixotic, constantly baffling and often remarkable Under the Skin resists explanation and easy reading at every oblique turn, a strange social realist science fiction yarn which somehow generates a sense of forward momentum and Lynchian unease from merely observing the unusual actions of its heroine.
The film it initially recalls is Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch, particularly as it too offers a rather unflattering portrait of a rain-sodden Glasgow, but also in that both films transplant the malformed skin of a genre movie onto a narrative body that's entirely motivated by futuristic philosophical ideas. There's a sense, too, that the world both films represent is on the verge of some kind of apocalyptic reckoning, and Glasgow (poor Glasgow!) seems to encapsulate humankind at its most debased, feckless and decadent.
The skin of the title belongs to a blank-eyed, black-bobbed Scarlett Johansson whose unnamed twilight temptress appears (sorry to be vague – the film offers nothing in the way of context or back story) to be harvesting the bodies of young males. She coaxes them into her white Transit van, lures them to a pre-arranged venue and then… 'stuff' happens.
Ideas are half-formed and semi-suggested, as the film initially presents itself as some kind of intergalactic ethnographic study, then as a body snatchers-referencing horror movie, then, eventually, settling down as a truly bizarre feminist parable which plays the concepts of empowerment and vulnerability off against one another. Forgetting for a moment that Johansson's character is an alien, Under the Skin is most interesting as a simple (conservatively-minded?) moral tale in which a female predator is eventually given a taste of her own seek-and-destroy medicine. The untenable sexual politics of the film are truly fascinating, and one could argue that, at its core, this is a film about rape, seduction and the act of invading other people's bodies.
With Glazer behind the tiller, Under the Skin was at the very least going to be a technical marvel, but it's surprising just how restrained he is here. There are some more traditional sci-fi moments which hint at the provenance of these visitors — they seem to like sex-shop red lights, minimalism and sluicing oily liquids down slides. He counterbalances these high-style inserts with grotty, grubby verité footage of Glaswegians going about their daily business. In that respect the film suffers from an irksome cynical streak, the suggestion being that humans are only capable of bringing ugliness and degradation to the world. Aside from the breathtaking natural landscapes — mist somersaulting on a lake, snowflakes falling onto the camera lens — Glazer offers a world where any kind of superficial beauty has been vacuumed from it.
It's hard to instantly come down on either side of the fence for this film. It's so defiantly clinical and furtive that, even though it's clearly a work of great substance and mystery, it lacks a basic sense of tenderness. The entire film pivots on the alien's sudden development of a sense of compassion and pity, yet our feelings towards the character aren't allowed to develop in similar ways.
Johansson in skin-tight Primark duds certainly fits the bill as a credible femme fatale, but it's hard to want to unpack all the various things the film is about when we only feel a chilly apathy towards this perplexing interloper, who remains unknown and unknowable from the first scene to the last. Her performance is strong and careful, but just falls short of transcendent. And for this film to really nail all of its conceptual cues, she really needed to be out of this world.