Scarlett Johannson looks no less unworldly under a mink rug, and curtain of splenetic dark hair, than she does wearing nothing but a cell-phone case. She also looks no more of her time. Her talent for radiating an unkillable precocity keeps Under the Skin true to its title. This out-of-left-fielder, directed by Jonathan Sexy Beast Glazer, is an erotic fable in sci-fi drag, and Johannson is a Disney princess in stiletto heels and black leather. (BuzzFeed be derped for whipping me with that image.) More than its star, she is its cynosure. I missed the first few minutes, but she appears to be an alien put on this earth to cruise for men—a Pied Piper for Penises—though her objective is unknown. Rolling down her van’s windows, and coming on to passersby like a street-walking mannequin, she picks up her prey and repairs to her lair, a black-hole bordello where both parties wordlessly strip. To a ritualized drum beat, she marches backward; each man who follows is swallowed by the quicksand floor. As if by hypnosis, his game face remains fixed on Johannson—even as his eyeline sinks. There are no signs of struggle.
Now, I’ll acknowledge here Glazer’s inversion of the “male gaze,” which has gone from being a valid critique of how women are objectified in the media to an inside joke between coy filmmakers and freshman film theorists. When one has a beautiful woman bear her bounty only to shame the audience for wanting to see it, the brain is not the organ one is attempting to arouse. I see a potential glint of self-serving self-righteousness—the blood and butter of revenge fantasy—in Skin, but it isn’t as exposed as Johansson is; and, as with a similar reservation I had about Blue Is The Warmest Color, I think any smugness is ultimately transcended because the ironies go past any specifically feminist interpretation into something ungendered, apolitical. This unalloyed art-house film is not so baffling if one accepts that its content is not the “story,” or the invisible field of sci-fi reference—with allusions to The Man Who Fell to Earth, etc.—that suggests a context for the action. The content is Johannson’s psychological journey from victimizer to victim; the mystery is in the tragic inevitability with which her arc is freighted. Glazer’s ornate austerity, like the musique concrète blocks he drops, only weighed me down when Johannson’s journey forked off onto a byroad—such as during a scene at the beach that was rather more vague than ambiguous.
But I don’t mean to suggest that Glazer has only one note to play. Under the Skin is remarkably compact for all that it synthesizes, and the gestalt works on its own as a breath of cool atmosphere. In movies, less often really is less; but this one, with its Scottish frugality—it was shot in and around Glasgow—darts past those movies whose makers believe they’re commenting on clichés by distilling them. It is countryside and cobblestone: a modern city built over Brothers Grimm ruins that have their own secret life—an immanence. Shooting surreptitiously, Glazer mulls over the surfaces of daydreams on hard faces which aren’t locked but aren’t open; this is an outsider’s view, and the guerrilla footage adds a layer of irony, of intangibility, to the incomprehensible fullness of all strangers, with the added amplification of kaleidoscopic effects that evoke silent films about rural emigrants in big cities. It is the sheer volume of life in public spaces that puts Johannson in a headspin; she lives in the safety of shadows, in the cockpit of a van that whirs like the bridge of the Enterprise. Real life gives the film texture, a counterpoint that Air Doll—another poetic fable about a woman feeling the weight of her flesh for the first time—lacked. (Why do all these women-on-the-verge films seem to be directed by men? Now there’s a gaze worth looking into.)