Sex is a powerful thing. It’s a carnal desire that whittles down even the strongest of our species. Much like the symbolic bone found in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s both a creative and destructive tool. I think we can all agree that the role sex plays in our society is male driven. As we peek behind the veil of gender equality, sex is man’s god given right, while it’s merely a privilege for women. This notion allows for a premise as morbid and disgusting as rape culture to exist. When you have politicians and moronic men blaming rape victims, one thing becomes clear: exploration of the female body is a man’s journey that no one can impede. This is the society we live in, where a man’s sexual hunger is a normal piece of human existence, and a woman’s sexual urges are unnatural, alien to this planet.
In Jonathan Glazer’s provocative Under the Skin, women, at least for a little bit, capture the sexual power and prowess men have owned for centuries. The film opens up on a naked, unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) standing over a dead woman in a whitened room. After taking the dead woman’s clothes, our extraterrestrial lead takes to the streets of Scotland. Whether she’s on foot or in a van, this unearthly woman persistently stalks men. There are times where she simply can’t entice the men she comes across, but when she does, she invites them into her life, often asking them probing questions about their existence. Through casual conversation the men expose their inadequacies, their loneliness and boiling sexual desires. Once they’ve consented to a sexual rendezvous, the woman leads the men into an apartment that evolves into a black abyss. Blindly following the seductive trail of the alien woman, the men descend into a dark pool that forces them to shed their skin. The woman moves on, seeking yet another victim.
As she marches on and encounters varying types of men, her late night dissections wane. A deformity and nurturing hand seemingly convince her that her human mask is real. Empathy and trust open her up to stunning human experiences, but those dissolve just as she establishes an identity as a human. Obviously, Under the Skin isn’t a plot driven film, as it’s told through a collection of interactions not predicated on distinguished beats. Almost all the interactions between the men and our female alien are genuine, which Glazer accomplishes by filming Scarlett Johansson actually interacting with real Scottish men. Johansson is a marvel altogether, but she is especially a wonder in these scenes where her character entices her victims through conversation and suggestion. Capturing Johansson interacting with these men in their natural environment deepens the film’s eerie atmosphere. The worn, voyeuristic vibe cloaking these encounters is beautifully offset by special effects that are as ghastly as they are lush. The artistry employed around the fluid skinning of a man is at once disgusting and majestic.
The hypnotic imagery on display is only amplified by a dizzying score that will likely rank as one of the year’s best. From untrustworthy, buzzing strings to distorted sounds that emulate foreign screams, Mica Levi’s musical cues perfectly capture the unnerving journey of a lost being in a foreign land. Being that it’s more interested in themes than plotting, subjectivity over objectivity, Under the Skin is a film destined for divisiveness. There’s a lot going on, especially when we view the film from broad perspectives (e.g. the human condition). But the message it’s seemingly transmitting, at least in my mind, is that the validity of sexual desire is contingent on one’s gender. And under the gender roles of this Earth, women are merely aliens posing as humans.