“Under the Skin,” a noirish sci-fi film by Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) is austere and visually striking, inscrutable and haunting. It’s also a meditation on what it’s like to be a woman in contemporary society. Or not.
The “woman” here is an alien in disguise, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has come to Earth to hunt men. After climbing into the pretty skin of an expired human, she dons a fluffy black wig and tarty clothes, and applies a bright pop of color to those famous pouty lips.
Her trap set, she drives a van through the streets of Glasgow and seduces her victims, leading them, zombielike, into pools of black gunk. Then the tables turn; she shows vulnerability and becomes the hunted.
Shot on a low-budget often with hidden cameras and using a mix of professionals (like Johansson) and non-actors, “Under the Skin” feels dually creepy – it tells a strange story and, reportedly, the everyday Scotsmen she picks up didn’t recognize the raven-haired, English-accented Johansson or know that a movie was being made.
Glazer artfully creates a mood of anxiety, dread and mystery – to that end, he puts dashes of Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick, DePalma, Scorsese, Cocteau and Buñuel into this cinematic stew. What’s not in the recipe is meat – we get virtually nothing in the way of back story, exposition or even a suggestion as to why any of this is happening (a question that is answered in the source novel by Michel Faber).
Though the spare dialogue adds to the tension, it also keeps us in the dark in terms of a traditional narrative. But perhaps that is Glazer’s point: since we are watching a story of an alien it’s fitting that it unfolds not in a common language but in ambiguous images.
Depending on your taste, “Under the Skin” will be exquisitely harrowing or peculiarly maddening.
“Under the Skin” opens April 4 in New York at the Regal Union Square 14 and AMC Empire 25 and in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood and AMC Century City 15. On April 4 and April 5, at the Regal in NYC, director Jonathan Glazer will do a Q&A after the 7:20 p.m. shows. The film will expand nationwide throughout April.