'Under the Skin': Mysterious femme fatale roaming Scotland
She doesn't say much, this black-haired woman in the tight jeans and tacky fur jacket. She drives an unmarked van. She stops and asks passersby - always male - for directions. Sometimes she'll offer a lift. She's friendly and inquisitive, wanting to know whether the men have family, friends, roommates.
And if they don't, that's the last anyone will hear of them. Poor guys - one victim after another.
In Under the Skin, a deeply creepy and mysterious noir from filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, Scarlett Johansson is this quite literal femme fatale, robotic, hypnotic, trolling Scotland - cities, villages, the cold rocky shores - for prey. Who she is and where she's from are questions that get answered, to a degree, as she moves through her nights and days, but she shares an affinity with other strangers in a strange land: David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, say, or Jeff Bridges in Starman, only less benevolent.
Under the Skin begins with a trippy Kubrickian lightshow - orbs and spheres, horizon lines illuminated in blinding flares. (The music throughout, by Mica Levi - spare synthesized strings, percussion - adds to the eerie vibe of the film.) And then the camera finds a motorcycle zooming through the night on a curved road, its headlight probing the dark. And soon enough, there's Johansson, on her predatory rounds.
Glazer's film is minimalist, avant garde-y, and its seduction scenes - Johannson stripping down, and the man she's lured along for the ride stripping down, and then moving toward each other as the surface beneath their feet turns to liquid - have the power and poetry of a dream.
Or a nightmare.
Glazer and his cinematographer, Daniel Landin, capture people as they come and go (talking of Scar-Jo?), commuting, shopping, partying. There are sequences on crowded streets, faces dark, voices loud, that evoke Lindsay Anderson's mid-1950s Free Cinema short, O Dreamland - a narration-less tour through a seaside amusement park, like Diane Arbus fueled on fish and chips.
Under the Skin definitely gets under your skin. If you want spooky, allegory-free sci-fi, the film works that way - an alien among us, trying to come to terms with this odd new context, and with her increasingly empathic urges. (The more she lingers, and commingles, the less sure she is of her own being.) But if you care to look at Glazer and Johansson's film as something else - a woman's journey as a sexual being, the hunger, the curiosity, the power, the fear - it works that way, too.
Just don't climb into any vans driven by smiling, beguiling women who offer a ride back to their place.
Under the Skin ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer. With Scarlett Johansson. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, sexual violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and AMC Neshaminy.