24 Lies a Second: White Van Woman-Thing

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White Van Woman-Thing

By the time I hit my early teens I was already irretrievably an SF and fantasy fan, and keen to educate myself in the genre. Bearing this in mind I would routinely record and watch any film cropping up on TV which was even casually described as belonging to either genre – most often science fiction, of course, as full-blooded fantasy films were very thin on the ground until only a few years ago. As I result I spent many hours ploughing through fairly unrewarding material – there can't be many 14-year-olds even today who've made the effort to sit through Quintet, Alphaville, and The Man Who Fell To Earth.

I rather suspect teenage SF junkies of the future, if they're anything like me, will have their own lists of films-described-as-SF-but-not-exactly-being-commercial-cinema. Hurtling onto this list may well be Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, which is about as avant-garde as a prominent release gets these days, but I suspect many teenagers will not find it much of a chore to watch. This is another of those challenging experiments in absolutely minimalist storytelling, where the burden of deciding exactly what's happening in the story is left up to the viewer. It's not quite as utterly oblique as Upstream Color, but it is still rather like a Shane Carruth movie, were he to make one featuring hefty quantities of a naked Scarlett Johansson.

Yes, this is the Scarlett Johansson as a naked alien femme fatale SF sex horror movie. The film may be called Under the Skin, but it's the skin itself which is the most striking thing about it, and I fear it seems to me that it's impossible to review this movie usefully without talking at length about the copious and somewhat graphic nudity involved in it. I am aware of the impression this may give you concerning my own priorities when it comes to films, but, well, that can't be helped. Glazer's film is impressive enough to deserve being taken seriously.

Based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns an unnamed woman (Johannson) who spends her time cruising around the greater Glasgow area in a white van picking up random men. It is clear from the opening, in which she strips the clothing from a corpse which has been deposited in a mysterious white void, that she is from Somewhere Else but her nature is not immediately apparent. Once she has acquired a beau, she lures him back to her base of operations, which is a black void that does not seem to be tied to any particular location and appears to have somewhat different laws of physics. She removes some or all of her clothes, he removes all of his... at which point things take an unexpected and rather unwelcome turn, from his point of view at least.

The film follows the woman through this ritual a number of times, never really bothering to elucidate exactly what is going on. She seems to be supported in her activities by a motorcyclist, who effectively tidies up after her, but the real nature of their relationship (like nearly everything else) remains unarticulated. Later events perhaps cast some light on this, but discussing them in detail would take us perilously close to boundaries of reviewing good practice.

Anyway, you may be thinking, especially if you are young and male, that many of your Christmases have come at once: this is a movie in which Scarlett Johanssen comes on naked, repeatedly strips partially or wholly, and is the subject of a number of painstakingly lit and photographed nude scenes. And yet, while the film has an undeniable erotic power despite its narrative idiosyncracy, this is inextricably linked to a strange power to disturb and unsettle.

I am sure this is entirely intentional: there is clearly a fierce intelligence and calculation at work in the making of this film – one does not make a film as sexually charged as this one, with a title like Under the Skin, and cast in the main role the only person to be named the World's Sexiest Woman twice, without giving the matter some serious forethought. At the very least, a Hollywood star like Johansson is at least as incongruous a presence in an arthouse low-fi SF movie as an otherworldly sexual predator is in contemporary urban Scotland – but the actress dials down her star power quite a few notches and spends the film in a brunette wig, to say nothing of the convincing English accent she adopts.

This may explain the quality of some of her interactions with her victims. I was not surprised to learn that most of these roles are played by non-professionals, but the modus operandi of the film-makers did startle me a little: apparently Johansson's initial encounters with most of them were filmed with hidden cameras, with the men involved unaware of exactly who it was they were speaking to. At this point the film crew would jump out, proffer a release form, explain what was going on and what would be required for their involvement to continue, and then see who was willing to sign up. Given the nature of the film, I would be fascinated to know just exactly what the rate of uptake was.

Even so, the key scene of the film – and certainly the most disturbing one – sees Johannson attempting to seduce a man badly afflicted with neurofibromatosis. I have to confess to being quite uncomfortable with this kind of physical disability, and watching the man being emotionally manipulated was deeply troubling. But more than this was the looming prospect of the inevitable sequence with the two of them naked together. It may just be my own personal attitudes involved, but my response was strongly ambivalent, if such a thing is possible. I am pretty certain this is exactly what the film-makers intended. I have to admire their intelligence and guile even if I am somewhat inclined to think ill of them for making the prospect of a naked Johannson considerably less appealing than I would have thought possible.

This is the kind of performance that many critics automatically describe as 'brave' – this of course being code for potentially unflattering or unusually revealing. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson approaches the film seriously and seems entirely committed to it, even if her involvement in it seems more based around her physical appeal than her undeniable ability as an actor. It's understandable that Johansson should want to exert her star power by leading a few less obviously-commercial projects such as this one, but while this is a very impressive film in its own way, I'm not entirely certain it is going to be remembered for the right reasons.

As you may be able to tell, this is one of those fairly uncommon films which has – ironically enough – got under my own skin, and I find myself struggling to process my own reaction to it. The obliqueness of the story is striking, although the general sweep of the narrative becomes more discernible as the film goes on, but for me the heart of the film is in its exploration of unsettling themes of exploitation and our relationship with our own bodies. In a way I feel manipulated and challenged by the film in a way with which I'm not entirely comfortable, but at the same time I have to admire the self-evident skill that has gone into its creation. Under the Skin is certainly one of the most striking and memorable films of the year so far. I may never look at Scarlett Johansson in the same way again – and certainly not as intently.

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