Under The Skin is cryptic, haunting, and erotic in a way that’s more likely to make you curl up in a protective ball than turn you on. And if you haven’t yet seen the Scarlett Johansson sex alien opus, it’s now out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental sites. The film, from music-video-director-turned-filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, is one of the year’s best and strangest, an often wordless and chillingly remote look at the world from the point of view of a predatory extraterrestrial driving around Scotland as she tries to seduce men in order to use them for their parts.
Johansson’s fabulously creepy as the nameless invader. She’s flirty and warm as she speaks to potential victims from her van, many of them just passers-by unaware that they were being taped by hidden cameras. Suddenly, she turns away and her face just empties of all signs of humanity. She’s built to entice, but there’s something monstrously Other underneath the surface. It’s an unforgettable subversion of the screen sex symbol, and it’s the most ambitious role Johansson’s ever stepped into, one that offers a reversal on the sultry types she usually plays.
The “male gaze” is one of the classic ideas of film theory — that movies reflect the point of view of a straight man, because that’s still, overwhelmingly, who gets to make them, and, because of this, they tend to regard women the way that a straight man would, as desirable objects, things to be looked at. But the scene above, variations of which are repeated through Under The Skin, is also about watching and craving, with the voluptuous Johansson sauntering away from the camera in the middle of that velvety backdrop, peeling off her clothes and tossing back heated glances.
But then, we also see the alien’s audience of one, poleaxed with desire, lumbering naked and aroused into certain death without even looking down. It’s the movie looking back at the viewer, and suggests only one party’s actually getting off on this. The alien’s never anything but calculating. She’s the one in charge of this scene, and while she’s offering herself up to be leered at, there’s nothing passive about it. Under The Skin takes a step back from the male gaze, and observes it in action with extraterrestrial dispassion.
The alien springs the trap, and as the man vanishes from sight, she briskly picks her clothes off the floor, puts them back on, and walks away. It’s an incredibly eerie scene, but it’s also a pointed, perfect encapsulation of the ways in which the male gaze only addresses one side of the story.