Under the Skin – An erotic and poetic nightmare speaking of beauty and desire

I have seen quite a few strange movies in my short time, but only an elite few transcend the barrier from being intentionally confusing shambles to pure visual poetry. After all the hype around other movies this year, it is pleasantly surprising to finally see a shade of Kubrick emerge in this less-than-known movie about an alien Buffalo Bill. Under the Skin is in every sense the most captivating movie I have seen all year, inspired in the light of 2001 and Lynchian themes, resulting in a film that is soaked in metaphors and minimalism that do not drown the point of it all. An extremely strange and unsettling piece, it had me speechless and frozen for the entirety of the runtime and a couple of hours thereafter.

This is the tale of an alien who is sent to Earth on a hunt for unsuspecting men, who she lures into her abode and binds them by their primate sexual instincts, until they are consumed. While the plot may seem unimpressive and like cheesy sci-fi of the likes of Species, comparing the two would a sin. A science fiction movie like none other, it keeps the tension strong and tightened, disturbing and leaving a mark that will never disappear. The layers of the human psyche explored in the movie are unparalleled, and the setting is perfect for the same. Foreshadowed by its title, Under the Skin is infinitely romantic in its dual exploration of mankind’s desires and our conception of beauty. The inherent idea of what it means to be beautiful receives a masterful treatment through the imposition of a life form that wears the skins of others – truly ‘under the skin’. This is furthered by the ‘alien’ nature of the being, unexposed to human conceptions and desires, and therefore free from pre-conceived notions of beauty. The powerful theme of beauty and what it entails to human society is explored through eyes which are alien to human beauty and all human senses. Asserting the inherent lust within every man, and the magnificent beauty that makes this lust rage hard, the movie drives in hard the themes of inner beauty and the superficial nature of our desires. The folly of lust is depicted in the most graphic scenes of the movie, those of dark waters. The lust is seen here as all-blinding and spellbinding, leading on our inner primate to certain demise. Conventional external beauty is here represented by the skin that we wear, hiding the true form within, which is alien to any observer. This true form is always despised and feared, as society along with our animal instinct is in search of only a physical form, the skin. This idea is brought to the forefront in an extremely wretched and horrifying style.

The movie is very much like a poem in the sense that it provides you a certain experience to be felt and seen, yet nothing is explained, but everything probes and touches your inner human self. The film belongs in a waking nightmare, where the sounds of life itself are swallowed and imposed by the sheer magnitude of the hunt. There is a second story entwined in that of lust, and that is that of the folly of human emotion. Society is a cancer that inflicts on us unfound emotion and by evoking desires and feelings within us, that same society destroys its mutilation. The struggle and incompatibility of human sensibilities is shown through a series of seemingly unconnected scenes of sympathy, taste and finally, the central theme of sex. Emotion is indeed the fatal flaw that fells even the greatest of predators, for with sympathy for the prey, there can be no hunt. The romance in the movie is one between the hunter and the hunted, each influencing and creating shadows in the other, to the very end. Some films find mastery in self-realization and a solid premise, this one thrives in the uncertainty riddled around the impossibility of its categorization.

Jonathan Glazer in his third movie has created an intense, deep, and provocative movie that blurs the line of genres, presenting the cinematic extrapolation of a nightmarish dream. This movie brings back to mind the atmosphere of Kubrick and the plots employed by Nicholas Roeg. An eerie atmosphere is maintained throughout the movie, with danger hovering over, not letting a single breath escape. Similarities abound in the method the tension is kept airtight, deriving from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey the most. But not for one moment does this feel borrowed or copied, but manages to throw a slightly different tone to it, one of menace and disturbia. The movie is very silent in that there is very little said or even explained through images, leaving behind an unusual sequence of events that make sense to some, and to others, it still remains a beautiful psychotic opera. Stark and prolonged images where almost nothing happens, is where most of the movie transpires, quite ironically. If I was to classify this film (which deserves never to be classified) then I would put it somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, not in magnitude, but the former for the atmosphere and elements used, and the latter for the specific mystical feel to the movie. It would not at all be too far a leap to say that the direction and portrayal of the alien are immaculate. There is a constant sense of unsafeness and predation for most of the movie, but then in the midst are certain scenes of a more sombre affair, where she meets and talks to the unsuspecting men. While this may seem disjunctive or broken at the first instance, the whole unsettling affair dawns on us once we come to realize that these men were pulled into this nightmare while going about their routine, daily lives. Therefore it is important that these scenes need to be juxtaposed to the graphic ones, so as to heighten the impact, as well as to provide a real place and society for the events to unfurl in. This was partly achieved through involving complete strangers in the film, having Scarlett Johansson seduce them record their quite natural and real reactions. The actors were then later made aware of this so they could act in the rest of their scenes. John Carpenter used real, practical models of the monster in The Thing to capture very real reactions in the actors, as did Kubrick with Shelley Duvall in The Shining. (Although that last one was probably more disturbing than the movie itself, considering how he tortured her for those special emotions of fear) This treatment, being given here enhances the experience in two ways – one being the sense of realism induced in the viewer, and the second, the muddled accents and mumbling adding to the incomprehensibility of the human world that she is alien to. Therefore, through our confusion as to the characters’ speech, we experience her isolated feeling of being born anew in an unknown world. This is specifically the reason why subtitles were left out of the equation. There is also a definite artistic quality to the way the suburbs and solitary highways are captured for this movie, in an incredibly cryptic and dark fashion, adding to the supernatural essence of the movie.

Probably the most vivid and memorable scenes in the movie take place in the abode of the unnamed female. It is here that the prey is lead on, in a most trippy and enrapturing way, finding themselves immersed in murky waters, until finally they are caught in a liquid-like substrate. The deadly mating ritual of an increasingly naked walk is very reminiscent of Lynch and his sensibilities as to psychotic trances and symbolical utopia. These are undeniably the most horrifying and unsettlingly picturesque images in the film, including those deep within the murky black waters. While the direction reaches its artistic zenith in the painting of the two figures in light, everything surrounding them pitch-black, the horror of the movie peaks under the waters, where the second man watches her first prey being digested to nothingness, all the while knowing that the same fate awaits him. Those deafeningly silent shots of the first man, his skin drooping over his shrinking flesh, wailing and calling out for help, are definitely here to stay in your mind for some time, and will be the ones that keep you up at night.

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There is a clever use of the natural eeriness of the Scottish suburbs in the wake of the evening, complemented by the constant humming and chattering radio-like noise that engulfs and transposes itself onto everything. The score contributed by Mica Levi is most appropriate in its mystified supernatural tones, resonating with danger. The prominent use of sound to elevate the tension and gravity of even the slightest of glances is reflective of Lost Highway and most Lynchian pieces. The sound is ever imposing and is properly tuned to the times of the hunt. There is a specific score that keeps repeating – one mirroring the lubb-thud of the heart, and makes you hold yourself in baited breath – every time she goes on the hunt, and this is further used to denote the shift in power. In every scene she is seen chatting up strangers and generally observing things, the sound is quite bleak and there is a brief clearing of the dense air to allow a sense of realism. It cannot be impressed how important the absence of dialogue was important in contributing to the overall feel of the movie, as the brief moments of light conversation are used as tension-lifters one second, and then even more blood-curdling in the next, since it makes us aware that these horrifying events take place during the day, as we go about our respective businesses. But then, the silence and bleakness that last the entire time the men hold their ground, gradually shifts into the imposing sounds of the hunt, making it clear that she has now gotten hold of them, she is now in power.

The decision to cast Scarlett Johansson in the role of the alien was as calculated as the movie itself, as the viewers are made prey to the themes of sexual desires and preconceptions of beauty, through the use of a universally accepted beauty as the pawn. Aside from that, the captivating performance that she delivers justifies her casting as not merely for the former purpose. This is an incredibly challenging role, almost completely devoid of a script, imposing the visual performance through facial expressions. This she does perfectly in the calm, icy visage during the first two acts of the film, and then a startling shift to a consistently scared and confused image, experiencing the alien sensation, which gathers sympathy for the otherwise lifeless character. The confusion in her eyes is made all the more imposing in the absence of words and the prominence of sound.

Under the Skin is a true masterpiece that takes hold of the viewer and never lets go, enticing and leading you on, until you sink into the depths of its murky waters. It is amazing to see something that aims for so profound a theme, through subtle nuanced imagery, that doesn’t take to spoon-feeding, and yet doesn’t feel pretentious. It is a vivid, erotic and provoking experience that plays like poetry. Definitely one of the best movies I have ever seen, and deservedly so, for its sheer poetic imagery. If there was ever an heir to Kubrick, this is it.

Rating: 9.5/10

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3 thoughts on “Under the Skin – An erotic and poetic nightmare speaking of beauty and desire

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2014 in Film | DavidandStan Movies

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