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There was the discussion the other day ON why it is that Scarlett Johansson is such a sex symbol. It is not because of her looks as such, “looks” being defined (by me, at least) by the first impression you get when you see somebody’s face. She is not ugly by any means, but she does not have the stunning looks of a Gina Lolobrigida or Penelope Cruz. Johansson is much more straightforward, a pretty girl, maybe appearing a bit more accessible than those others. But that, paired with her generous curves and overall delicious completeness of female features creates the Johansson effect: you would like to hold your breath until you turn blue in the face and faint the second she appears. Maybe, again, that’s just me, but the way “Under the Skin” is constructed around her seems to confirm there is a general (male and female) perception of the cliché that she represents as a sex goddess. It would take somebody like her, the film suggests, to lure regular, innocent men, or at least men not specifically guilty of anything other than being men, into her spiderweb, from which there would be no return. And those men, they don’t mind there’s no return, they are very happy to spend their final minutes (or hours? Centuries? The film is not very clear about this…) in a state of blessed sex-hypnosis.

Why does she do this? Select men, lure men, hand over men to a system that… er … processes them and makes them useful input to whatever kind of unknown? Not very clear either, but what is clear is that this is her task, and she (it?) is diligent about the task, learning whatever skills and moves are necessary. The opening shots illustrate that there is nothing emotional of any kind about that: a change of wardrobe happens between two women. One is up and running, the other one dead or almost dead. The live one needs the clothes, so she takes it. Whether this is from a living or dead body or from a shop rack is of no concern to her. It is an element of her task. As is to perform some form of quiz show with her potential victims, seeking to figure out whether they fit the profile she is tasked with identifying (she is an equal opportunity predator, at least with respect to looks and general physical appearance). If they do, another game ensues, an erotic song and dance to bring them to a point where they literally drown in their lust and their projections of this woman.

There is so much to say about this film that it is worth checking out all the reviews listed at Rotten Tomatoes. I also would specifically check the Slate Spoiler Special after seeing the film, that is even more rewarding in this case than in others, and it is also enlightening to hear how a bunch of people can collectively remember important plot points profoundly wrong (fate of baby on the beach…) without losing their feeling for the overall film.

The one aspect I do want to mention is the visual style, or more specifically the fabulous contrast between the gritty street looks of regular Scotland with the ethereal looks of the inside of Johansson’s … lair? The people almost floating in an eternal space, walking on black water or drowning in it, this netherworld is dreamlike in every way other than it seems to be real to the people in there.

The narrative style reflects this in a way (although I cannot really express how): there are no explanations, maybe the only character who ever gets agitated is the (lead?) motorcycle man, who serves as Johansson’s “My name is Wolf, I solve problems” backup and cleanup crew. He gets agitated very late in the film, though, and I am not yet too sure whether it is anger and frustration he expresses, or whether it is the more sober need to get this situation resolved they worked themselves into. The latter would be more convincing in terms of character consistency, but then again, at this point in the film Johansson has shown already that her particular group of society sometimes is actually able to deviate from their straightforward mission and do things that can be deemed rather counterproductive.

Whatever the flaws may be, whatever over-stylishness you may want to accuse this film of – it is so fantastic to watch this kind of film after a long summer of rubbish blockbusters! Challenges for the eyes and the brain, that’s never a bad thing. Naked Scarlett Johansson neither. Naked Celtic supporters … well, it needs all kinds to make a world, right…?

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/under_the_skin_2013/

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