Scarlett Fever Gets Under the Skin


In Her, all we heard was Scarlett Johansson’s voice – that husky, alluring, beautiful voice – as she played Samantha, an Operating System that fell not only in love with its owner, but in what it means to be human.  In Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin, it’s Ms. Johansson’s body that is on display (her voice used sparingly, awkward and British when she picks up her victims on the street) as she portrays a nameless alien come to earth to lure men into an inky goo (for what purpose we can only imagine from director Glazer’s fantastically bleak and otherworldly images).  She is an alien that eventually succumbs to that same Samantha trap – she can’t help but become fascinated by what it means to be human.  What egotistical creatures we humans are that we constantly have to fantasize about the “other” – be it artificial intelligence, gods or aliens – going completely gaga over us – as if we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread…or chocolate cake, as in one heartbreaking scene that probably has made every female audience member gasp, poor Scarlett is a cursed creature that can’t even enjoy THAT…a piece of chocolate cake.  Oh, if only she could be human and enjoy that damn slice of cake!

Yet Mr. Glazer and Ms. Johansson lured me into the trap with master precision.  The film is directed with a doctor’s scalpel with every image, every dissolve and overlay, every light, every tone, every musical note (from Mica Levi’s extraordinary score that sets a new bar for the discordant musician turned film scorer, Jonny Greenwood and his ilk) perfectly composed.  The packaging of this boring ages-old-tale and self-obsessed human fantasy is so disarming…so transfixing…I didn’t care what it was about.

Glazer opens the film with Kubrickian images of light and something…something alien…mechanical…plotting…moving…slowly transforming until it is a human eye…Scarlett opening her eyes to the world…to Scotland, treated here in its misty gritty glory in the same way Bergman once mused cinematically on Sweden.  Coldly Scarlett’s “other” is aided into her disguise by a biker (a comrade? her boss? her pimp?) and she proceeds to prowl the city and the countryside in a white van looking for male victims to send into the goo.  Lynchian imagery populates the scenes of seduction, and one startling moment comes when we get the second victim’s eye-view of being submerged in the goo, looking up at Scarlett’s beautiful form walking above him and then down and over to see another man in the goo about to get…well…I don’t want to spoil it.  Their fates are quite indescribable.  The film’s first hour is full of this cold, calculated, startling stuff (including a failed rescue of a drowning victim handled in a very un-human way by the alien)…and I wish Glazer had stuck to that.  But alas Scarlett’s “other” eventually falls for us…lucky, lucky us.

Under the Skin Mist

For a movie about an alien that tries to break from the tyranny of its “otherness” to experience humanity…the film could’ve used more moments of humanity.  There’s exactly one moment of well-timed levity when the aforementioned second victim (who was picked up dancing in a night-club) does a silly little jig (thinking he’s about to get lucky) as Scarlett beckons him into his inky fruitless fate.  Another moment of humanity comes when a deformed man pinches himself inside Scarlett’s van as she awkwardly flirts with him.   Is he dreaming?  If only.

In the end, Glazer, the cunning provocateur that he is, punishes Scarlett’s “other” quite harshly for her veering down the human path.

Scarlett Johansson

Though many of his images evoke other directors he is wise to emulate, there’s something singular about Glazer’s packaging.  You feel simultaneously like you’ve seen this before (fractured, in a dream perhaps) and you’ve never seen anything like it.  Inside his packaging, Scarlett Johansson, is given the iconographic treatment.  Their union here would seem somewhat tortured…but it’s all so eerily beautiful…so…other.  Now if we could just, for once, enjoy the “other” for what it was and not project onto it our own human hang-ups.  That could be a story that could really get under the skin.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. Fair enough David, a spirited and insightful review here. I liked it a bit more and went with 4.5 of 5.0., while my site colleague Allan Fish went with 5 and 5, and declared it the best English language film of the new millennium. I don’t quite go that far to be sure, but it is unlike anything I have ever seen.

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