So when I heard A-list celeb Scarlett Johansson was starring in Glasgow based low-budget indie movie Under the Skin, it didn’t wholly surprise me. I met Johansson last year in Los Angeles, while she was being presented her Hollywood star on the walk of fame. Jeremy Renner was her guest speaker, who introduced her as ‘the girl he met a few years back in NYC wearing dirty Converse, covered in tattoos and piercings’.
Not your conventional Hollywood A-lister, Johansson stems from two films that try to avoid clichés; Terry Zwigoff’s quirky and bizarre Ghost World and Sofia Coppola’s melancholy yet beautiful Lost in Translation (my hands began to hurt from excessive clapping when these titles were mentioned during the voice-over list of her career), and has starred in almost 40 other films to date. Maybe just luck or perhaps our shared choice of septum piercing caught her eye and brought her in my direction; however, she walked straight to me after her first interview. And no, I did not just imagine this in the way deluded fans exclaim ‘Oh my god, the lead singer totally just looked at me and sang that song JUST to me’. We made eye contact, she obviously dug my style, and then she walked towards me. She did. I promise.
As she was signing my small yellow post- it, and not the vast amount of large laminated Avenger’s posters pushed towards her by obsessively costumed fans, and people hoping to sell them online, I proceeded to ask her where her septum piercing was? She laughed and replied with a cheeky grin, ‘Oh it’s in there!’ possibly tucking it up after the bad press she received with her bold piercing choice.
Now with rumours she may be moving to my neighbouring city Glasgow, for its poetry festivals and underground live music scene (although Edinburgh is better…ahem…), her likeability, in my books, continues to grow.
Her recent role in Jonathan Glazers’s Under the Skin depicts a man- eating alien disguised as a seductive woman, who drives around looking for unsuspecting male victims. Filmed in Glasgow, the cinematography offers realistic images juxtaposed with powerful sci-fi visual effects. The portrayal of Glasgow may offer escapism to viewers unacquainted with the location, an attribute many audiences desire from cinema. However, for myself, I feel I could see these images with my own eyes, for free, if I simply walked into the city centre. Although the concept that scenes were secretly filmed with the crew hiding in the back of the car is interesting and demonstrates a unique and intriguing technique, I feel the bleak realism of Glasgow may be excessively depicted. The frustratingly slow shots and repetitive nature of events creates a dull and monotonous narrative. However, with almost no dialogue or back story, the mysterious element certainly lingers after its viewing. The minimalist role is a very internal performance from Johansson. She perfectly captures the emotionless yet deadly femme fatal character, and alongside the visually stunning digital effects and creepy soundtrack, evokes an eerie darkness throughout the film.
The notion of gender is also cleverly represented. Being voted sexiest woman alive by Esquire Magazine in 2006 and 2013 proves Johansson to be the perfect casting for the object of male desire. The effortless ability to lure a male through sexual lust is one gender weakness Glazer explores. The film also illustrates a statement of society’s beauty culture. The alien takes the form of an attractive female, as women seem to be valued by beauty. The use of mirror images as Johansson applies her deadly red lipstick interestingly captures this theme. Furthermore, the patriarchal culture of men believing woman to be an easy sexual endeavour is also apparent. Watching a male characters dissolve into the unknown, when he thought he’d be getting some straightforward sexy-time, gave me some slight sadistic pleasure as a female…
A second gender weakness is femininities role in the downfall of Johansson’s once blank character. When watching the film I noticed engaging links to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, similarly set in Scotland. The character Lady Macbeth asks to be ‘unsexed’; allowing the removal of nurturing and motherly characteristics stereotypically associated with femininity, to instead become ambitious and murderous. She even discusses the killing of a baby, an act one would think unimaginable for a female with maternal instincts to carry out. The reverse happens to the Under the Skin alien. In an early scene we see the detached character ignore a crying baby left alone on a beach at night, after the parents have been washed out to sea. I found this scene very distressing to watch, but its presence is a very effective tool in portraying the alien’s initial empty and cold demeanour. However, taking female shape results in ‘feminine weaknesses’ developing in the form of emotions and vulnerability. The alien begins to ignore its male-devouring purpose as its human morals begin to grow.
Overall, Under the Skin is an interesting and original take on a ‘female’ alien prowling the streets, and I feel that with the streets being Glasgow, it adds to its unique element. I enjoy seeing big stars, like Scarlett Johansson, branch back out to the organic roots of independent film. Globalization within film opens up opportunity for wider audiences to observe other cultures. Although its bleak and unglamorous depiction of Glasgow is not a very positive portrayal, it still offers a refreshing distinction from Hollywood cinema. It took Glazer 9 years to adapt the original novel. Even if you don’t like the film, you will definitely not forget it. Maybe for its mesmerising visual effects. Perhaps for its unusual idea and its realistic shooting methods. Or possibly you will simply enjoy observing Johansson walk around a normal shopping centre, unnoticed by every day people, and realise famous celebrities may not be as alien as we hold them up to be. Under the skin we are all just human.
Written By Nasreen Saraei