The Year of Scarlett

An alien Scarlett Johansson gets under your skin.
by Philip Matthews

Is it too soon to name the film of the year? Maybe, but too bad. It’s hard to think that anything could beat Under the Skin. But let’s go further still. It’s not just that Under the Skin is an unusually daring and innovative film; you could also say that this is Scarlett Johansson’s year. If your International Film Festival sessions were in a multiplex, as they were in Christchurch, then you probably left your Under the Skin screening and saw a poster of Johansson in gun-wielding action mode, coming soon in Luc Besson’s Lucy. Earlier this year, in Spike Jonze’s Her, she was the voice of an operating system that is also your perfect girlfriend. She was again the fantasised ideal girlfriend (is there a pattern here?) in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn-is-a-problem film, Don Jon. She reprised the Black Widow part in yet another instalment of the endless series of Marvel films – Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She was in Jon Favreau’s food movie, Chef. She became a mom, too. In real life.

But Under the Skin is the one, partly for the way that it pushes the received notion of Johansson – the “sex kitten” or whatever – into entirely unpredictable places. On paper, it is the kind of thing you might find 1000 variations on in the sci-fi section of your discount video store: alien seductress comes to Earth in human form, kills men. Roger Donaldson directed one of those once: Species in 1995 was notable chiefly for having HR Giger on board to design the alien. In the 1980s, Tobe Hooper made one called Lifeforce – original title, The Space Vampires – in which three nude humanoids are discovered in the tail of Halley’s Comet. One (the female, naturally) wreaks havoc in London and the generally camp mood was close to an eroticised Hammer film from the 1960s. Under the Skin was loosely assumed to be in this tradition: my own this-meets-that tagline was “Lifeforce meets Morvern Callar”. That is to say that director Jonathan Glazer [pictured below, left] pushed the stylisation of his two other features – Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004) – into much more experimental territory.

Another summary is to say that Under the Skin is the best remaking of tired and faintly dodgy genre conventions as art since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, although in its eeriness and alienation it might be closer to the polarising non-sequel Only God Forgives. Secret-camera realism collides with hyper-stylised treatments of the alien-human encounters, done as beautiful and terrifying metaphors of sudden death. Johansson is almost silent throughout. An incredible, abrasive modernist score by Mica Levi nods in the direction of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Ligeti, extending the parallels with Shining-era Kubrick, who was already a touchstone for Glazer in Birth, 10 years ago. And the close-ups on eyes that open Under the Skin may remind you of 2001. The 2001 stuff in the action film Lucy – from the Dawn of Man right through to Beyond the Infinite – is more overt, and more berserk.

In a loose and minimal adaptation of the novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber, Johannson’s unnamed alien being drives a van around Scotland, cruising for men. Part of the power of these encounters with real Scottish men comes from the reversal of situations: a female predator is trying to lure men into her vehicle (I was thinking of Fred and Rosemary West, picking up unlucky young women at bus stops). The encounters were filmed surreptitiously with strangers who gave their consent to the producers afterwards, like an art-house alien reality show. The stylised killings are performed in stark black rooms, where the solid floor suddenly gives way to liquid. The conspicuously naked men sink to their deaths but Johannson keeps on walking backwards. This strange drowning is the death metaphor. We catch glimpses of further horror: what happens to all the harvested bodies? The mood throughout is of ominous secrecy. It can even feel a movie out of time, more like art-house cinema from the 1970s, partly because of the Levi score and partly because you might be reminded of Nicolas Roeg’s equally striking but ultimately less coherent The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which is remembered now as the most effective matching of rock star (Bowie) to movie role but also tried to generate an alien view of human life. It was also a science-fiction film that was largely free of the visual trappings or conventions of science-fiction. The kind of cinematic radicalism that Glazer works with in Under the Skin is less fashionable now than it was then, and it’s an excitingly uncommercial departure from Sexy Beast and Birth, just as it’s also a radical break for Johansson.

The question is what makes Johansson so suitable as the alien – or in Lucy, the advanced being? The Bowie thing was easy: his hair was orange, he was as thin as a rake, he hadn’t slept for days and his eyes didn’t match. Maybe in Under the Skin it’s the frumpiness of Johansson’s black wig and fur coat, with her middle-class British accent, plus an aloof distance. For her to be an American in Scotland adds to the sense of otherness, just like Bowie’s Englishman in America.

In a Sight and Sound interview, Glazer said that he was reluctant to cast the film with someone well known but he knew he had to. Whatever the effect, she was an interesting choice. There was a school of thought that it was all more or less over for Johansson. Film critic David Thomson wrote in 2010 that she should have made the 2004 edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film despite “the book’s famed reticence towards beautiful young actresses”. I’m pretty sure he was joking about the reticence. So Thomson put her in the 2010 edition, even though “serious doubts have begun to shadow her serene sensual blooming”. He wrote that “timing is everything, so the woman who looked inevitable in 2003 [the year of Lost in Translation] is now getting closer to 30”. Thirty! Why, that’s positively ancient. (In fact, she will be 30 in a couple of months). In the entry on Johansson, Thomson gets in one more reference to “the sensual droop of her great mouth” – and notes in passing that she was also “a sumptuous teenager” – before sending her off to the knacker’s yard for young starlets. Thomson could not have seen that he would turn out to be wrong. Is Hollywood systemically ageist or sexist? Probably no more than most audiences.

The same Thomson wrote that Jonathan Glazer’s previous film Birth was “one of the most daring and emotional films of the decade”, and he has written movingly of one great moment for its star, Nicole Kidman (in fact, he wrote a book about Kidman). Everyone who has seen Birth, and not enough people have, will know the bit. Kidman is at the opera. The film’s dominant mood is wintry and supernatural; it’s about grief and delusion. We get a long, long close-up on Kidman’s face, and it could be her best ever film moment. The sadness and confusion in Birth can seem like it’s closest to what you imagine is Kidman’s natural setting. Say this about Glazer: he has a knack for casting. Does anyone like any Ray Winstone performance more than the one he gave in Sexy Beast?

In Sight and Sound, Glazer also talked about the response of Scottish strangers when they learned that was Scarlett Johansson in the van, toying with them:

“Jaw on the floor, but most people gave their consent. Some didn’t – there were some fantastic scenes we couldn’t use. That was another benefit of shooting in Glasgow. I don’t think you could have shot that film in London. First of all, you’d have SWAT teams – you’d find yourself with a laser light at your forehead in 10 minutes, because we had guys walking around with rucksacks with wires sticking out of them … Some guys are flirting with her, meeting her gaze, and some are absolutely terrified by her. You see men as they are in those moments. What I like about her sexuality in this film – particularly in the mirror scene, where she’s completely naked – is that she’s almost de-eroticised her own image. She’s reclaimed her image.”

Despite the sexual elements, Johansson in Under the Skin has personal agency and the treatment is a world away from the passive and objectified Mathilda May in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – or Natasha Henstridge in Species – or the teenage Johansson that David Thomson summons with words like “sensual” and “sumptuous”. Lifeforce meets Morvern Callar? Yes. Remove the sci-fi baggage and this has a raw, sad, realist view of Scotland, much as the fantastic and no less enigmatic Lynne Ramsay film did. It also has the same sad view of men and what it is that motivates them.

UNDER THE SKIN is released on DVD/Blu-Ray in New Zealand in October. LUCY is still in New Zealand cinemas.