Scarlett Johansson has always been a difficult prospect. Although she has risen to stardom through her talent as an actress, from her debut she was lumbered with the dubious privilege of also being a “sex symbol”. Being set up as an object of desire might seem like an honour, but for a serious actor it must be just as much a stigma – threatening to undermine and distort the perception of every role you undertake. I’ve always had trouble separating the two in my mind, interpreting her presence as a cynical attempt by the film’s backers to manipulate me.
In Under the Skin she manages to completely nullify that burden for the first time, by confronting it head-on in a film which, though completely focused on sex and erotic desire, goes to great lengths to be as unerotic as possible. In the film Johansson plays a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom, who is essentially a mixture between a foreign spy and a trafficked sex-worker. Brought to Scotland by a shadowy ‘handler’ – who acts as part-bodyguard, part-pimp – she is tasked with seducing and entrapping as many adult men as she can, by exploiting their lust for her physical beauty. The real plot which is served by these entrapments is left deliberately vague, but – as the film makes clear in the most memorable its many miniature visual masterstrokes – it’s going to leave the men in question feeling a little bit adrift.
Throughout the first half of the film, we see essentially the same scene repeated over and over. It’s a setup which is immediately absurd and quite unsettling – Johansson, driving a white van, pulls over and talks random passersby into getting in. In a clipped English accent, she quite crudely engages them in flirtatious banter, with the almost explicit proposition of sex, trying to lure them back to an isolated location.
What makes the scenes so effective is that the men involved are not professional actors, but are untrained volunteers – and it really shows. At times it feels like you’re watching a new, zero-budget reality TV show about Scarlett Johansson freaking out Scottish men. The dialogue between them feels completely spontaneous and unrehearsed, and the excitement and disbelief of these ordinary men being propositioned by this mysterious, beautiful woman is obviously partly the excitement and disbelief of ordinary men suddenly confront with Scarlett Johansson in a van.
Some of them try to be charming; others are struck dumb; others become aggressively overconfident; but their various reactions are never the focus. The film is concerned with the façade of bland, sexualised beauty which Johansson’s character presents to them each in turn, never changing in a single detail. In the same language she presents the same offer, with the same awful result at the end of it – a routine so repetitive that it seems to have been programmed into her.
It’s only as the film goes on that we realise how close that is to the literal truth. Unlike the thriving subgenre of “feminist” empowerment porn – where a badass superheroine gets revenge on male sexual chauvinism, but in a way which still gives Quentin Tarantino a boner – Under the Skin focuses in on the gap between our ideas about sex and beauty, versus the reality. Then it works its grubby little fingers into that gap, and tries very hard to pull it open.
At the start of the film, Johansson’s seductive immigrant seems to be a perfectly manipulative, calculating mastermind. As the film goes on, we realise that persona was simply a shell – an artificial mask, constructed and given to her by someone else entirely. Over time that mask starts to slip and, by the film’s later stages, we realise that the character we thought we knew never really existed. Underneath is a new person, who is practically a blank slate – lonely, lost, and only half-alive.
Early on, in a waking nightmare which is vividly directed by Jonathan Glazer, Johansson’s immigrant witnesses a tragic display of human tenderness in action on a storm-tossed beach. A young mother swims out to sea after her drowning dog – then a young father swims out to sea after his drowning wife – then a newly-orphaned toddler cries alone as the waves roll in. Johansson takes the opportunity to seize an unconscious bystander – the latest subject of her mission – and leaves the infant to the elements. The film teases us with several shots of the infant still on the beach, still crying, as her sinister bodyguard returns at nightfall. He dutifully cleans the scene, ensuring no evidence of her remains, and then leaves the child to die.
It’s a startlingly effective and quite horrible scene, which introduces the film’s main theme – the immigrant’s slowly growing sense of humanity. This is sparked by a later scene, as she attempts to seduce a man with extensive facial disfigurements, played by real-life sufferer Adam Pearson. Although he falls for the deception like all the others, their encounter seems to spark her first sense of human connection – of all the men she lures into her van, Pearson is the only one she engages in physical contact. Her eventual act of mercy towards him marks the end of the false, fragile life she has lived for the first half of the film – she sees in his extreme physical appearance a mirror image of her own. They may be at opposite ends of a scale, but both are set apart from common humanity by their appearance. There are strains of The Elephant Man or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the film’s later scenes, as she gradually becomes an outcast – forced to isolate herself from the world, as the tantalising possibility of a real life slips through her fingers.
The film ultimately finds its way into a kind of failed, nightmare version of the Pinocchio fairy tale, as Johansson’s puppet starts to dream of becoming a real person, and finds that it just isn’t on the cards. The gulf between an erotic ideal and the vital realities of human life is starkly presented. Created purely to serve as a totem of sexual desirability, this literal ‘sex symbol’ is only alive enough to realise what she is missing, but not alive enough to ever reach it. Her shadowy creators built her for a specific and limited purpose, which she can never escape. Thankfully, Johansson seems to have written a happier ending for herself.