Under the Skin

So what are we left with here? Scarlett Johansson plays a predator who is a skeletal obsidian void – her purpose to suck lusty men into another black void at the command of fierce male motorcyclists. These silent beings are hungry for the fleshy red insides they themselves lack. The contrast between humanity and the alien other comes down to the biology that underpins our sexual and romantic lives. Perhaps... The film really leaves you to work it out for yourself.

What I am certain of is that Johansson's casting was quite deliberate. A bit like Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, her star-power is impossible to ignore, which is all to the film's purpose. Her role here almost feels like a comment on parts she has played in so many other films (Lost In Translation, The Other Boleyn Girl, Vicky Christina Barcelona) – the babe who isn't quite aware of how alluring she is. Here she is given her skin and forced to seduce men, and she does it clumsily. And yet even that is part of her charm – a corruptible innocent, a bambi-eyed femme fatale who rewards saviours with sex.

When Johansson is damselled for real she encounters two men – the first seemingly benign, the second a rapist and murderer. The first is a proper gentleman, but her silence and passivity means that his interest in her can be little more than physical, since her inwardness is entirely alien and strange. The second turns the tables on the honey-trap predator and destroys her – her sensuality is both her means of survival and her downfall. There is something slightly slut-shamey in this, except that the film suggests that Johansson is being coerced into her role. The motorcycle men collect a dead prostitute at the beginning of the film, which may be a defective model Johannson is replacing. In any case, the women here are disposable and shaped for male ends.

In all these scenarios, the film is gesturing towards ideas that are hardly new or surprising: the automated doll that starts developing a sense of self and begins to dissent gave this blog its title. That this revolution is stirred by the solidarity Johannson finds with the lonely and marginalised is also an unsurprising character arc – in fact, it's romantic almost to the point of cliché. Even the final images, where she is burned to death and the falling snow extinguishes her funeral pyre, evoke allusions to witchcraft, martyrdom and nature's indifference to all the living and the dead.

All of the art-film trappings – the black to white framing device (suggesting the birth and death of both the protagonist and the universe), the great soundtrack by Micachu (minus the Shapes) – doesn't quite disguise the fact that pulp has covered this territory already. Under the Skin is stylish, but it isn't all that clever.

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