The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood