Under the Skin is parable. If you analyze the film that way and acknowledge that Jonathan Glazer operates, in-tune, with the female perspective, then you can get a better idea of what exactly it means to be a “woman” in Under the Skin’s world - which is, honestly, our world.
Scarlett Johansson is an image of physical beauty that is both classic and contemporary. Parts of her - with her curvy appeal - are very Marilyn Monroe in figure, but there’s still a modernity to her raspy vocal contour and her knack for naturalism in her acting technique. Making her an alien formed physically in the shape of man’s object of desire pretty much directs itself - even if it requires Johansson to debunk stereotypes and any knowledge of the human world in order to deliver a performance that is composed of mannerisms and thought processes that are, quite literally, inhuman.
Jonathan Glazer started his career in music videos and made his first feature film, Sexy Beast, in 2000. The film was overflowing with masculinity and people behaving like cold-blooded animals with the capability of premeditation. It’s quite interesting to see the path the auteur took following it - with 2004’s Birth being an emotional rollercoaster of female-driven pathos. That film - met by both critics and audiences with equal amounts of scathing reviews and controversy concerning its subject matter - is one of the 21st century’s most undervalued of masterpieces; influenced by Kubrick in tone, but deftly a new cinematic voice everywhere else. There’s beauty, alone, in Glazer’s decision to linger on Nicole Kidman’s slowly pained realization in one, unbroken, silent and heavily orchestrated long take. Under the Skin is only his junior feature affair, and it’s quite engrossing to witness Glazer’s growth and realization of self as director; one very provoked by the complexities of the female condition.
Under the Skin begins with a little bit of Bergman inspiration by calling out, up at the front, that this is a piece of cinema. We hear Johansson, as the alien, speaking words as to learn the English language before she’s transported to earth. One of the words that is given the most emphasis is “film”, as an eye is being formed in what seems like some hybrid of 2001 visual effects mania and Persona-driven meta territory. Before the story even starts, we’re treated to this level of operation - as to make the alien worlds of pitch black and drowning white in other scenes feel both extraterrestrial in narrative, but cinematically self-aware in presentation.
Like Birth before it, Under the Skin is a film steeped in sexual fallacy. Glazer’s commentary on how society has shaped what it means to be a woman isn’t even subtle - nor the fascinating thing about the picture - but it’s strongly there, and just as effective. The biggest development in Birth that single-handedly made it inaccessible to the casual American moviegoer was the bravery in the direction Kidman’s character falls. After much emotional torture, she’s convinced herself that her deceased husband has been reincarnated into the body of a young boy. Because of her belief, the horror of the film comes from not knowing whether or not the boy is the reincarnated husband and, thus, we’re petrified - but sympathetic - toward Kidman for coming to her own conclusions. Because of it all, she finds herself sexually attracted toward the boy - not because he’s a child, but simply because she’s strongly taken into the improbability that the man she loved is back. It’s the soul she’s in love with, and that’s Birth’s powerful and darkly romantic beauty. In Under the Skin, we watch how - in the span of only a few days - an extraterrestrial being starts to feel human emotion and, thus, finds herself driven away from being the sexually predatory monster that she’s been programmed to be. It’s in Johansson’s performance that we are treated to the same levels of uncertainty a la Kidman in Birth - and her experiences with men are of a manipulative, sexually devious kind as to give us the sympathy needed, and to help understand her destruction when facing what is, to her: alien.
To argue Glazer as a feminist filmmaker is to be aware of his deepest interests. To argue him as a horror auteur is to make the femininity of his last two films all the braver. Under the Skin ends on one of the most melancholic of recent movie sequences - where the genres of horror and science fiction are sent through the shredder by turning the entire film into a tragedy. A parable, yes, but a tragic one - where this being has found its place as woman in this world, but is incapable of feeling connected among those who are with primal behaviors and sociological construction. There’s no wonder she can’t even walk down the streets of a city without overwhelming herself with the nature of it all, nor that she can’t help but start tapping her fingers to the beat of a song or truly starts to see her own naked human body in the mirror. To see her stripped of her disguise, and at her most truthful of presentation - without the sexualization of her costume - we see her what she truly is, and the world she has been sent to is too brutal and designed for a “monster” like her to roam in. Just like all those faceless “monsters” before her.
With an original score that feels almost revolutionary in its effectiveness, Under the Skin marks Glazer’s second masterpiece and has rightfully been acclaimed by most film enthusiasts. It’s also, thankfully, had many revisit Birth and pull back on the hostility toward its touchy thematic material. Films about women and about the horror that is uncertainty in a world so full of bizarre, unexplained things. What we’ve learned as humans through development, and the painful instinctive feelings of which we can’t control. That’s true horror cinema right there.