The difference between a film that makes me frustrated and a film that makes me think is often simply whether it feels by the end as if something has been left out, or if that thing feels like was in it the whole time and you just need to go back and examine it more carefully (Donnie Darko belongs to the latter, The Fountain is in the former). Under The Skin is a film that would regularly be frustrating owing to how many of the events that occur are not explained by the end, but the moment a pinhole of blinding light on the screen resolves into an unnerving eyeball the film announces itself as less of one person’s story, and more of one person’s experience. Where Under The Skin differs is that it doesn’t just deal in symbolism and allegory, but comes through meaning naturally as we are made to identify with another who shares our form, but not our humanity, at least at first.
Based on a novel by Michel Faber, Under The Skin is not so much the story of, but the experience of a unearthly woman (Scarlet Johansson) as she drives around the Scottish countryside, picking up strangers and engaging them in conversations that often end in offers to come back to her place. What happens back in her place is not what you you’d expect, but it creates a haunting and foreboding picture of her mission that permeates the rest of the film with a tangible sense of the otherworldly rather then relying on some convoluted backstory to anchor us to the mission.
She is the ultimate outsider, a being who looks human with her red lipstick and fur coat, but views the society she passes through with a strange uncomprehending eye. This woman (Known as “Isserly” in the novel) is a watcher whose purpose remains enigmatic, yet what is clear is that being among “us” is causing a barely imperceptible change in her demeanor. Though she’s introduced practicing her enunciation, she appears adept at interacting with her targets, as well as having knowledge of many of the human customs, which makes her status as an outsider less about how she acts and more about how she DOESN’T act.
What makes her performance unique is how good Scarlet Johansson is at portraying emotion in a way that feels so alien, and how she gradually expresses a growing bewilderment with this. Her character is subtle, and so she makes each glance around and each step she takes into one of importance, all while showing discomfort and discovery as she immerses herself in a world she feels like a tourist in. As she observes human behavior, some of it appears to be irrational, but as the audience we understand the emotions implicitly, and yet Isserly’s inability to grasp it both gives us an idea of what perhaps makes us human, and subtly gives us an idea of why this very thing is unexplainable even to ourselves. Is human a thing we do? Or something we feel? Isserly can do many of the same things that humans do, but she it’s clear that she does not feel human. So what is she, “under the skin” so to speak?
This sense of looking at ourselves from an outsider perspective is helped by a series of eerie compositions by Mica Levi that saturate the film’s atmosphere with a truly unnerving sense of the the uncanny. A frenzy of frantic strings accompanies the titles like Vertigo fed through a deep space subwoofer, and a seductive melody involving a violin plays out whenever Isserly enters into her strange black canvas that men walk into like the deep end of a pool and do not emerge from. All of it contributes to the sense that she is a creature wholly unlike any on this earth, and by allowing us into her view of the world we form an unlikely connection with a being that we would regularly have no way of empathizing with.
The incidents that occur during the film range from mundane to meaningful, but none of them feel artificial in the same way most symbolism tends to come across. The theme they share is an immersion into a situation where human emotion is at its peak, and how the more she finds herself in these circumstances the more unsure she becomes about who she is. One particular scene has her stalking a man until he enters a club, only (in a bit of silent comedy) to be swept in by a gaggle of woman who seem to instantly accept her as one of their own, adding to her confusion about whether she is supposed to identify as human or not.
At one point the paradox becomes too much for her and she retreats to the Scottish countryside where she encounters a new feeling, attraction. Given how her previous actions have been so focused on luring men via her form and seductive manner, it’s highly significant that her attempts to understand the feeling are the inverse of how she began the film. Though Scarlet Johansson is definitely beguiling, her charms are subdued so that she’s less like a femme fatale and more of a lure on the end of a hook, but what happens when that lure begins to have feelings?
In the end, Under The Skin is a strange and unique film that defies genres and expectations, and in doing so asks some truly personal questions through the experience of its central actress. It does not answer these, but it also does not pretend that they have definitive answers either, and this willingness to honestly explore them without ending with a Hollywood style epiphany lends the film a more meditative quality that stays with the viewer even after Isserly has come to the end of her journey. If our humanity is more then just the skin we wear, then could some other creature that looked nothing like us, but felt like us, identify as human? And how can we know for sure, when that skin we see in the mirror is so connected to our idea of who we are, and the fear of “The Other” looms large? An existential crisis is one thing, but a crisis of biological and alien existence? Now that’s something that will get under your skin.