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Under the Skin

April 14, 2014
Under the Skin

There are few film actors in recent years as impressive as Scarlett Johansson. Her imitation of Janet Leigh in Hitchcock matched Hopkins’ own performance; she went head-to-head with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon; she was masterful in Her without ever appearing on screen. Just a couple weeks ago, The Winter Soldier reminded us how good she is in mainstream action fare. And now we get Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, featuring possibly her boldest and most powerful role yet.

Johansson’s unnamed character is a mysterious woman driving around the cities of Scotland in an unmarked van, stopping men passing by and asking for directions. She offers them a ride, makes small talk, and if they’re alone, with nobody who will miss them too soon, she asks if they want to go back to her place. It seems plenty of men are willing to go home with a strange woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson.

Her exact nature is obscure throughout the film, though it’s more fleshed-out in Faber’s novel. Suffice to say she’s an alien, abducting men for some unspecified purpose. When driving around alone she is affectless, but she turns on a friendly smile and patter when she opens a window to her mark. The thick — and un-subtitled — Scots accents help reinforce the sense of alienation; we are, along with her, strangers in this place.

She starts out aloof, as interested in an ant as in a person. As her mission begins, she accepts her role as a lure: an attractive target to please men’s eyes, although repurposed here to do them harm. But as she spends time wearing a woman’s appearance, she begins to identify with these people among whom she drives. But it’s when she meets one profoundly lonely young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, that she breaks with her mission. No longer content as merely a figure to be admired by men, she begins to explore herself as a woman. And in doing so, she begins to court the wrath of men who might be horrified to discover something more than they expect, quite literally under the skin.

Glazer manages to shoot much of the film from hidden cameras, mounted all around the area where he’s planned out the actions. Many of the men are actually random passers-by giving directions or engaging in small-talk before the movie is explained to some few of them who might need to do more. For this achievement alone, the film is remarkable, but of course there’s more to it than mere technical merit.

Johansson’s arc is exquisitely crafted from her initial distance to her growing self-awareness. She deserves praise for taking on a role that exposes her to this extent and handling it with such honesty and maturity. The danger of prurient comments is very real; many serious critics seem to have gone for the cheaper take, declaring the film “erotic” as if praising it, when there’s nothing erotic about it.

Yes, there is a naked female body, but when it is most thoroughly explored, it is removed from any sexual context as she watches herself in the mirror. To declare this erotic is to project one’s own adolescent mindset, viewing a woman’s body as valuable only to the extent that it can incite lust. She does not look at herself with lust, but to see herself as the person she wants to become. She is escaping the narrow strictures of sex — just as many young women push to in our own society — and those who call her nudity automatically erotic are those who would push her back down and objectify her.

Scarlett Johansson herself is just one of the millions — indeed if not billions — of women who struggles to become more than just her pretty face in a culture and an industry that is designed to reward her for little else. She is beautiful and alluring, but she like all the others is more than that. She showed, in Her, that she doesn’t even need a body at all to be charming and funny and witty and human, and the powers that be declared her performance unworthy because we didn’t get to ogle her. What a shame to value her only for her outward appearance — her skin — and to ignore or revile everything that lies beneath it.

Worth It: yes.

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