Under the Skin digs below the surface

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Starring Scarlett Johansson. Rated 18A.

Under the Skin is such an audacious, original, and visually provocative work of art, I’m almost hesitant to dilute the experience by discussing it. Almost is the key word, because, well, this is still a newspaper.

The news, if any, is that Scarlett Johansson manages to do more with stillness than many actors pull off in constant motion. This role, as an unnamed alien with an uncertain mission on earth, could be a continuation, or inversion, of her part in Her, in which she was the disembodied voice and unattainable love object of Joaquin Phoenix’s sad everymensch. In Skin, Johansson’s character has literally taken her body from someone else. (There are numerous drowning victims, or something, in the film’s depiction of our chilly planet.) That body, driving a van around Scotland and purring in a posh British accent—also alien in this context—lures local slobs to their narcotic doom.

How she does this, from behind a mask of dark hair and red lipstick, provides the movie’s most startling and squirmingly erotic moments. They combine Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-ish futurism with Nicolas Roeg perversity (think of Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth) and 1950s sci-fi pulp—right down to composer Mica Levi’s unforgettably Theremin-inspired score. Perhaps even spookier than foreground events are unforgiving Scottish landscapes captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin, who shot many music videos for U.K. director Jonathan Glazer. (David Bowie, Björk, and Radiohead were among the appropriately otherworldly subjects.)

This is only the third feature for Glazer, who previously brought us the highly regarded Sexy Beast and less loved Birth. Both titles could apply to this one, too.

Shared with Michel Faber’s more complicated (and conventional) novel, Under the Skin is an awfully generic handle for something already too open to interpretation. Writing with newcomer Walter Campbell, Glazer has elliptical things to say about the mesmeric roles women must play to survive in a patriarchal world, here represented by anonymous and nearly identical motorcyclists who follow up on her obliquely vampirical shenanigans.

Dudes also enforce order when our antiheroine starts to go native—that is, begins to show empathy for the hapless earthlings, represented by ordinary Scotsmen caught on camera, and by one deformed fellow who triggers something human (for want of a better word) in the intergalactic traveller.

Emotions may be muted, but the movie, like Johansson, digs far below the surface of what we call life.

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