Under the Skin is surely a contender for the best movie I’ve seen this year. A sci-fi art film that renews one’s confidence in both science fiction and art cinema–no small task–the movie’s basically about an insensate alien prostitute (Scarlett Johansson) who escapes her pimp and develops a consciousness.
Highly episodic, the plot raises questions about masculinity and female sexual identity–what it means to exist “in” or “as” a woman’s body. (Language is failing me here.) The Johansson character seduces various lonely Scottish men by becoming objects of their fantasies (her nimbleness in moving between varieties of role-playing and the film’s episodic structure at times reminded me of Holy Motors (Carax, 2012)). She lures these men to her apartment–an abandoned building in ruins–and then into a pitch-black room (where only the figures are visible) where she encourages the men to strip naked and walk as if entranced toward her until they are submerged in a pool of black oil (fig. 1). But after an encounter with a gentle disfigured man, whom she encourages, in his first experience touching a woman, to slowly caress her face, she begins to discover her own perceptual experience, the look and feel of her own body, and her sensuality. As liberating and pleasurable as this seems to her for a time, she is soon confronted with her inability to escape male fantasy. But these are only the bare bones of plot and theme.
The film reinvigorates the experience of cinematic ambiguity–reconnects it with the robust and subtle textures of visual and aural perception. From the grand opening display of style (a sequence of rounded shapes and shadow–her creation?) (fig.2), to the Une femme est une femme-style montage of faces on the street of Edinburgh (is this subjective, or is the narration veering off from the protagonist for a moment to evoke a sense of place and “ordinary” people?), to the crack (one that’ll make you leap) when the male body submerged in that oil suddenly shrivels, and floats down like a shawl of flesh and bone into the dark abyss that awaits her “victims” (are we in a metaphoric space here, or are these men actually being lured by Johansson into some unseen beast’s abdomen, where they are slowly digested in its juices?)–Under the Skin‘s ambiguous handling of body and perception and plot could only have come from a careful study of the medium, and how it can explore those (even now) under-explored aspects of embodied cognition in which visual or sonic experiences (onscreen) suggest faint traces of significance and elicit a meaningful interaction with our experiences (again, of what is onscreen) without providing the raw materials needed for this cognitive play to come to rest.
In other words, the viewer’s hypothesis-formation is titillated from moment-to-moment through a simple sound or a stimulating visual texture or, at a higher level, through quizzical character behavior and reaction; but the plot moves on, presenting us with new stimuli and puzzles, leaving us with a string of connected, but open-ended hypotheses that soon attract our attention, not because we become distracted by our thoughts but because the film is designed to cue a carefully linked series of hypotheses and to give us that important commodity–time–to ponder them.