Cet obscur objet du désir: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

As a rule, I like to know as little as possible about a movie before seeing it, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t avoid learning that the unnamed heroine of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) is an extraterrestrial who assumes the form of a pretty girl (Scarlet Johansson) in order to lure men to their deaths — something that the film makes clear only gradually. Unfolding without a word of exposition, the first hour of the movie is a kind of narrative striptease that slowly reveals what the heroine is up to as the film reveals Johansson, who gets a little more naked each time she brings a fresh victim back to her lair.

The film opens with an enigmatic sequence in which a black space dildo slowly penetrates a white plastic doughnut that plays like an obscene outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), hinting at the movie’s science fiction premise without giving away any concrete information. This is followed by an equally mysterious earthbound scene in which the heroine’s accomplice, an untalkative biker, picks up a corpse by the side of the road so that the heroine can appropriate the dead woman’s whorish outfit. As it’s never explained who she was or how she died, it only occurred to me in retrospect — after seeing what happens to the heroine in the final sequence — that the dead woman might be her predecessor in intergalactic vamping, though I can’t say for sure. (According to one review I’ve read, the dead woman is also played by Johansson, but it’s hard to tell as we never get a good look at her face.)

The stinginess of the film’s exposition, and the lengthy scenes in which the heroine cruises around Edinburgh picking up strange men (shot primarily with a camera mounted to the dashboard of her van), both suggest the influence of Abbas Kiarostami, and like Ten (2002), this movie is an ambiguous blend of fiction and documentary. In the publicity surrounding the film, much has been made of the fact that several scenes were shot using hidden cameras, but it’s not always possible to tell while watching the movie what’s real and what isn’t. I had read beforehand that the disfigured young man whom the heroine offers a lift to the supermarket is a real guy rather than an actor wearing makeup, and the interview-style dialogue invites the viewer to imagine what life is like for someone with a genetic deformity. However, when he says that he’s never had a girlfriend, I can’t be sure if this is true of the man or only the character he’s playing.

In addition to being a major turning point in the plot, the heroine’s decision to spare this man’s life is the first indication the movie offers of her having any sort of inner life. Prior to this, the only time she ever drops her sweet ‘n’ slutty routine is to bludgeon an unconscious man to death with a rock as robotically as the title character in Jeanne Dielman… (1975) peels potatoes, and indeed, it’s never explained why she wants to kill a bunch of horny Scotsmen in the first place. Furthermore, there aren’t any significant close-ups of the heroine either looking at the men with a predatory gaze or expressing remorse for her actions, and it’s unclear precisely when she begins to have feelings for the middle-aged bachelor who chivalrously offers her a place to stay when she flees into the Highlands. Rather than getting us to empathize with the heroine, the film presents her as something of an enigma.

I liked the film quite a bit, but notwithstanding one spectacularly creepy special effects sequence that’s like nothing I’ve seen before, there’s not a whole lot that’s new here. Alas, this hasn’t stopped reviewers from hyping the movie like it was a cure for cancer with Matt Zoller Seitz going so far as to place Glazer in the same “weight class” as Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Stanley Kubrick. But while each of those directors has or had their own distinctive sensibility, Glazer is at best a skillful imitator. To be sure, originality isn’t everything (just look at Steven Soderbergh), but to place Glazer in such august company is a bit like saying that the Monkees were just as great as the Beatles.