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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: R, Grade: B

There are a number of feature film directors who got their starts working on commercials and music videos. Jonathan Glazer, one such practitioner of the craft, exhibits a far more artful allegiance to the short-form techniques of his early days, enjoying the subtle nuances and slight insinuations that emerge when fusing music and images together to create a narrative without explicitly stating means and/or ends.

What does that mean exactly?

His latest feature, “Under the Skin,” involves an alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) driving around the Scottish countryside, picking up men of a certain type – single and completely unattached strangers, guys eager to be engaged by a beauty, willing to walk into the liquid void for a chance to share a naked moment alone with her – for who knows what purpose. The film is little more than a series of pick-ups and hyper-sexualized come-ons. Brief conversations with Johansson plying men with coy questions about their plans, their lives, with the payoff being a ride in her utility van to an undisclosed location, a walking striptease performed by each party on the way to submersion in a thick amber-like fluid and the inevitable sucking out of the human essence.

What is the purpose of such collections? Where will the culled resources go? Why do the men sink into the fluid, while Johansson’s alien walks on the surface, standing over her prey like an angelic siren/succubus?

Glazer’s not interested in giving us an explanation. He merely presents the situations, selling us on the idea of the power of Johansson’s skin, its undeniable appeal. The film might be a longer version of one of his early commercials. I’ve used his Palm Directors Label collection for the past several years in after school film club sessions I’ve conducted with high school students. Along with music videos, the man cut his teeth shilling beer (Guinness and Stella Artois), jeans (Wrangler and Levis), cars (Volkswagen) and financial services (Barclays).

Most intriguing of his branding efforts is one of the Stella Artois ads (“Whip Round”), where a young priest-in-training is assigned the task of securing beverages for his order during a relaxing afternoon’s skating on the ice. He takes the gathered cash, races off, comes back with a crate of beer that, due to the weight, cracks the ice beneath his feet, sending him and the beer into the freezing waters. Rather than being concerned for the newbie, a superior sends him under the surface for the lost drinks. The commercial proceeds without the need for dialogue, going so far as to mimic a silent era film with the bouncy piano from those old reels. Short and sweet, its joke is delivered with a delicious kick.

He works a similar twisted magic in the realm of music video – most notably for the Unkle release, “Rabbit in Your Headlights” featuring vocals from Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, which opens with a man wandering down the center lane of a long winding highway tunnel. Cars zip by as the man mutters under his breath. 

Suddenly, a car plows into the walker, head-on, knocking him to the ground, but then quickly swerves around his prone body. He rises and continues along his path, only to be struck again, and again and again. Once, in the midst of the parade of hit and runs, a car slows down, and the occupants attempt to engage him, to find out if he needs assistance – only to be frustrated by the gibberish he spits and spouts at them. Eventually, the man removes his raggedy coat, stands, Christ-like in the lane as a car approaches from behind and through the impact, destroys the car as the music fades.

One could argue that in “Under the Skin,” the audience finds itself in the same position as that walker, stumbling along, getting knocked about by Glazer, until finally standing up to embrace the notion we should simply submit ourselves to the seductive pleasures of Johansson’s charms and Glazer’s coldly haunting, yet inviting, obliqueness.