Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" What about Marty? "
— Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods

MRQE Top Critic

Noi Albinoi

Mystery and ambivalence about this Bleak portrait of isolation are amplified on DVD —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

Noi the Albino spends winter in Iceland alone

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Nobody in Under the Skin gets a name. Naming characters is a human convention, and Under the Skin has an alien perspective.

Black Widow

Johansson in the dark corners of Glasgow
Johansson in the dark corners of Glasgow

The story involves a mysterious black widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, seducing single young men, who follow their lust to their own death. The mystery is enhanced by the cool, detached style. There is no expository dialogue. We learn what’s going on by watching it unfold.

Unleashed by men in motorcycle outfits, she drives a van around Glasgow acting the lost Englishwoman in Scotland. Although her ultimate lure is lust, her first trick is to prey on helpful and protective instincts. She bides her time, watching the pulse of humanity. She’ll ask for directions, give a lift to the helpful strangers (if he’s a single men). When things work out, she drives the man back to her web, a glassy black void of cinematic space where she slowly undresses, leading him across the screen.

What happens next is a mystery at first. The men occupy a different space than she does. She walks across the hard glassy surface, beckoning, and they walk down into the surface like warm, embracing water. Glazer isn’t coy about it — in due time he does “reveal” what happens to the victims. But the revelation itself is just another disturbing mystery.

The same is true for the identity of our black widow. Glazer eventually shows us what she is, but it deepens, rather than unravels, the mystery.

Undeserving Victims

There is a turning point in her arc when she picks up a man with an “elephant man” disfigurement. She compliments him on his hands and asks him about his luck with women. One of the first things he does is to reveal his face to show her the disfigurement. He thinks she must have missed it. He’s obviously doing it to save time — this usually stops friendly women cold in their tracks. But she takes no notice of his condition and continues with her polite, encouraging conversation.

It’s easy to sympathize with the guy, who says he’s never really touched a woman. He’s obviously not a ladykiller and “undeserving” of being killed for his lust.

But of course that notion raises the question: do any of her victims actually “deserve” to be killed? Aren’t they just following their biological and cultural programming? They were invited, after all.

Mysterious Tones

The music by Mica Levi helps preserve the mysterious tone. Levi uses recognizable instrumentation — a small orchestra, heavy on violins — but played in unconventional ways. A dramatic chord sounds, but one note in the chord slides up to another tone, as though played by an alien musician who has no frame of reference and thinks that’s how violins are supposed to work.

After we finally get to see what happens under the glassy surface — all in cool azure, Glazer shows us another “room,” laser-red on black, that we can only guess is a garbage chute. The red room is a visual pinnacle, and it calls to mind (as do other shots) the bold design of Saul Bass, the organic engineering of Douglass Trumbull and the abstract art of Stan Brakhage. Glazer includes these purely cinematic visual flourishes, while still keeping them relevant to the story.

The polished-glass lair stands in stark contrast to the very organic world of Scotland. One of the first questions I asked myself was “why Scotland?” It’s a question that she later asked a surfer on the Scottish coast. “Because it’s nowhere...?” he guesses. My guess is that Glazer finds Scotland the perfect earthy contrast to the minimalist glassy lair. In Glazer’s lens, it’s green, muddy, rough, and natural. There is wool and leather, wood, stone, and peat.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin shoots everything darkly, so that you find yourself leaning forward trying to see into the corners. Landin and editor Paul Watts seem to take cues from comic books. There is a broad spectrum of framing, from extreme closeups of Johansson’s eyes, to extreme wide shots capturing dwarfed figures moving through the countryside. There are even a couple of important cutaways closeups of ants and flies. These are frequently cut together like panels in a comic book, each showing a different aspect of the same scene.

Sympathy for the Prey

Elephant man somehow he escapes her web. Presumably her growing fascination with humans has made her sympathetic, and it seems to mark the beginning of her fall. In an earlier scene she was unable to seduce the surfer before he died in the waves. Much more could be said about the disturbing scene, but suffice it to say her fascination with human biology was piqued on that beach. There might be some irony in her coming to understand human worth through the examples of death and deformity.

After Elephant man leaves her lair, she notices herself in a mirror and stares obsessively, as if noticing a pimple or a boil for the first time. What might be repulsive on someone else becomes a weird obsession when it’s growing on your own skin. This curiosity-cum-obsession with human biology, conveyed without words, proves the role needed the right actress like Johansson, and not just any good-looking bait.

As her arc bends downward, Glazer shows the motorcycle men stepping up their activity, picking up her slack. She had been the confident, patient, efficient, but now she becomes cautious, paranoid, and on the run. By the end, the sexual power shifts completely and instead of seeing men as potential victims, she is pursued by a would-be rapist.

Protection and Sex

During this last act, she becomes a helpless figure, having left her van in fog bank, walking through the Scottish countryside in her out-of-place pink sweater and high-heeled boots. She inspires the protective instinct of a man at a bus stop. The nice Scotsman takes her through the drizzle to his dark, cozy home. He gives her dry clothes and offers her a safe, warm place to stay.

But even this well-meaning act is laced with sexual power. The next day, after a walk through the local ruins, the man makes a pass at her. For whatever reason, she decides to go along with it. Remember, sex is still new to her because all of her previous conquests were trapped before she made contact with them. The biology and mechanics of sex surprise and shock her, and send her on the run again.

Minimalism

From what I’ve said, you might expect there is a lot going on in Under the Skin. Yet because the style is minimalist, the experience is kinetically slow. I can imagine some audiences finding it too slow. I can imagine other people being baffled by it all.

For me, though, Under the Skin is precisely why I still go to the movies. It’s honest, it doesn’t spell things out for you, it works emotionally, and it also looks great as pure visual art. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, and it has me excited about the movies again.