It doesn't take a doctorate in film theory or an expertise in experimental cinema to enjoy or even understand director Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin." But it wouldn't hurt to have both. It's safe to say this isn't your typical supernatural thriller.
The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed woman, a kind of succubus who lures men to their doom. Although there are twists along the way, that's basically it for the spare plot, which mostly repeats itself without creating much of a story. Character development is almost nil.
But those traits aren't deficiencies or flaws as much as purposeful deviations. "Under the Skin" is a surprisingly unorthodox film, even for the director of "Sexy Beast" and "Birth." It's the closest thing to a pure art film I've ever seen at an everyday movie theater. On a scale of 1-10, if David Lynch at his weirdest is about a 5 or 6, "Under the Skin" is about a 9.
The movie opens with a single white dot and unfurls from there in a startling array of haunting and beautiful imagery, set against an equally unforgettable score (by Mica Levi, who also goes by the stage name Micachu).
It takes place in varying degrees of reality. We meet Johansson's character in a stark room of total white light, as she stalks her prey in the rainy streets and mossy countryside of Scotland. Typically we see Johansson's character driving around in a van, asking random men for directions. If she encounters one who seems like a safe target, she invites him for a ride back to her place, where he'll slowly sink and disappear, like so many others, into a pool of black liquid.
"Under the Skin" is based on Michel Faber's more literal and detailed 2000 novel, and the synopses of the film found online often refer to Johansson's character as an alien, and the film as science fiction. Likely these have been written without seeing the film, because it's much more ambiguous than the novel about what's actually going on. Johansson's character could be an alien. If you've never read the book, she also could appear to be a demon, or just a metaphor.
The film's emphasis on light and movement over coherent narrative, and the objective over the subjective, further distances it from a typical adaptation. Some might even see direct allusion as key to the film's intention. For example, Johansson's naked body — subject to much discussion leading up to the film's release — reminds me of the woman's torso twisting in the light of Man Ray's 1923 "Return to Reason." There are many other examples, and the more familiar viewers are with the history of experimental filmmaking, the more they might see it reflected here.
But the film isn't merely a cold exercise. There are intense moments of tender humanity that stand out in the kaleidoscope of evocative imagery. The most daring is a tragedy so compelling and finely staged that it plays like documentary footage Glazer accidentally captured while making his film (also one of a few instances that seem like direct references to the second half of Hollis Frampton's "Zorns Lemma").
As with purely experimental cinema, "Under the Skin" also can be seen, partly, as an exploration of itself, of cinema as a medium, probing what it is to us and what it does for us. Some might find the attempt too cerebral, either decrying the lack of convention or calling it pretension. But "Under the Skin" is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful and wonderful to look at.
"Under the Skin" was shot digitally, so there's no film stock, emulsion, grain or tangible "skin" to get under, although the title could still have multiple meanings. But with filmmaking technology in the midst of a revolution, the investigation of it is ripe for renewal. "Under the Skin" puts our cinematic consciousness back together into yet another dream — or nightmare — only to burn it down once again. (R) 108 min. S