Under The Skin (2013)

Review first published in movieScope 37

We first meet Laura (Scarlett Johansson) near the beginning of Under the Skin in a room of uncannily pure white. Dressing her own naked body in the clothes that she has just stripped from a dead woman, she pauses, in a circumstantially odd, unexpectedly tender gesture, to stroke the corpse’s flesh.

Director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) has similarly stripped down Michel Faber’s 2000 novel to exposition-free scenes of a vampish Laura seeking out Scottish male loners to take home for something altogether more literally carnal than the sex they imagine is on the menu. Yet in this subdued, occasionally surreal sci-fi whose beats are charted in the elemental contrasts of light and darkness, water and fire, different forms of predation (human or otherwise) are showcased – and reversed – as Laura slowly realises that you cannot step into someone else’s shoes or put yourselves into their skin without eventually developing a sense of empathy and assimilation.

A consumerist motif is subtly limned by scenes set in shops and malls – but as Laura prowls the singles’ meat market, her gradual identification with her prey (in all their corporality and loneliness) foregrounds alienation itself as the principal theme. Johansson’s otherworldly performance, the intimate yet aloof camerawork, and Mica Levi’s unnerving, overwhelming score, all add to the film’s defamiliarising blend of stylisation and groundedness.

Anton Bitel