When it isn’t straight-up horrifying, Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast) long-in-the-making Under The Skin masterfully instills a deep sense of existential unease.
Loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber (a former long-term Marrickville resident), it’s nominally a science fiction film starring Scarlett Johansson as an alluring humanoid femme fatale, stalking Scotland in an unmarked white van for unattached – and mostly unwittingly filmed – male victims (much of the hunting is shot using hidden cameras within the van, with Johansson going unnoticed under a black mop of hair and an adequate English accent). After determining how much they’ll be missed on Earth with a few generic chat-up lines, she lures them back to her abode in the Highlands, wherein lies a pitch-black cosmic dreamscape; the prior spontaneity segueing into a ritualised dance of seduction between predator and prey, aided in no small part by the Bernard Hermmann-via-Noh-theatre music score from Mica Levi (best known for her work with Micachu And The Shapes).
This routine constitutes roughly the film’s first half, with a few ruptures (including a truly disturbing scene on a beachfront). Then, an encounter with a facially disfigured man who reacts incredulously to Johansson’s scripted flirtation inspires a reassessment of her task at hand, looking from the outside like embers of humanity. Much of the film’s imagery toys with our tendency toward anthropomorphisation or emotional transference; an unconscious face that seems to cry, a deflated human husk that contorts helplessly in a liquid abyss, or what looks like a patriarchal role assumed by Johansson’s male-form motorcyclist assistants.
It takes a while for the film to regain its footing following Johansson going AWOL from fucktruck duties, and whatever Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have to say about the innate qualities that maketh us human – inefficiency, inequality, loneliness – is, on paper, not completely profound. But the crowning achievement of Under The Skin is how Glazer and co. use a rich audio-visual language to suggest the vantage point of something unknowable. The film’s unmooring cumulative effect – from cosmic opening to elemental finale – is one of sentience feeling like a wonderful, terrible gift.
Under The Skin opens in cinemas Thursday May 29.