Part of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.
Where are we? Who are we? Why are we? These are questions that Under the Skin asks, and questions that I asked as the film began, circles of light accompanied by Mica Levi’s perpetually unnerving score. This image resembles a stage in the movement of the BFI logo, but these images hang in transition, never shifting into anything recognisable. Jonathan Glazer doesn’t let you settle and then shock you; he immediately disorientates the audience, making it clear that this film exists on a plain unlike any other you might know.
Straight away, we experience the impotence of the female gender within society; a dead body, hidden off road, is retrieved and slung into the back of a van, which, impossibly, contains a vast, blank nothingness. Glazer casts these moments in the model of a computer programme, that archaically familiar space that exists into infinity, precisely because it doesn’t really exist at all. This setting also taps into the stereotypical gender imbalance of the computer gaming world. Scarlett Johansson is the scantily-clad female figure, and what we assume to be a nameless prostitute has been killed; both things are tropes of misogynist gaming culture.
Scarlett doesn’t say a lot in the film. Her English accent is almost too good; the cut-glass nature of it is another perfect tool for disorientation, although you wonder why the alien would not have learnt their speech patterns from those in the local area. Still, it makes her more exotic to the passing men she picks up, an extra layer of glamour buried inside this giant van. Glazer uses her star image and her sexuality to great effect, but make no mistake; this is a great performance. When she gets the close-ups, she doesn’t oversell them; the looks are still alien, still peculiar, but they are also alien to herself. Who is she? The first image here, which is proceeded by the face shifting out of shadow, is an obvious but striking visual metaphor; the second (the best shot) is more bewitching, somehow, the black wig dominating the frame, Glazer iconographising his own film before its finishes. It can withstand the weight.