If there was a special episode of "Bang Bus" starring Scarlett Johansson, you'd watch it, right? After all, this is the actress The New Yorker just described as human champagne. And now you get to see her naked and riding a skeezebag in some derelict vehicle that has handles on the outside doors, but none on the inside. Yeah! *The world explodes.*
Under the Skin, starring the walking embodiment of Moet & Chandon herself, opens this Friday. It's the UK art-house version of Species, the movie in which Natasha Henstridge skull fucks a lame with her tongue, and it's directed by Jonathan Glazer, famous for his movie Sexy Beast, where Ghandi uses the word "cunt" as a semi-lethal weapon. (Glazer also made a movie called Birth, but it's less fun—Nicole Kidman takes a bath with a 10-year-old. Critics hailed it as a creepy/sad/moving allegory for loss, but try explaining that to your withering and confused erection, amiright?!)
Now it's time to pop those late night Spice Channel expectations like a balloon made of human skin (this is a reference to a scene in the film, not a product of my imagination, which is admittedly "so so"). Under the Skin is not masturbation material. No, Under the Skin is your "Bang Bus" nightmare. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who tools around Scotland in a white van, approaching men and then faking lost in order to get the dudes in her ride and then back to her house. She compliments these helpless rugby enthusiasts on their soft hands and nice eyes. They get so worked up at her voice that they can't even deliver intelligible responses when they talk to her. (Note: This could also be because they have Scottish accents.) They get so high on the sweet talk, they don't give a shit that the house is a wreck, what with the dripping wallpaper and black nests of burst pipe rot. And so then, in the house, she walks backward into an all black, like, space (a word like "room" doesn't suffice, since this zone seems utterly shapeless and formless, like the physical manifestation of a k-hole), stripping, and these poor bastards follow after her, stripping too, and then something really bad happens. Yes, even though they have hard ons, something really bad happens.
By now, you're probably like, "Whoa, we're not in Dick-Wetting, Kansas anymore, Toto.” (Toto is what you call your dick.) Yup. Exactly. Despite being filmed with actual amateurs (besides Johansson) and small, hidden cameras—the same way some porn claims to be—Under the Skin is NOT porn. In fact, it's probably something even more hardcore: proto-feminist art. Yeah, bruh. I know. I was surprised, too.
See, Johansson’s character exists in a world—our world—where, despite having the ability to grab the attention of men with her sexuality, she's ultimately powerless. She operates within a system that is controlled by a man, her male alien handler who drives a motorcycle, checks in on her kills and, generally speaking, seems to keep her in check. She has access to few tools, the most crucial one being her body, and yet she doesn't understand anything about it. Her own physiology is foreign to her, so much so that when she tries to have sex with a guy without turning him into dinner first, she recoils at just the tip, bolts to the edge of the bed, grabs a lamp from the corner of the bedroom and shines an un-shaded electric light bulb into her crotch like, WTF am I even working with here? It's a truly unsettling moment that could be funny if it wasn't so sad, arriving late in an art-house movie with a B-grade plot about an alien seductress. The movie ends on an even sadder note. What's the point of all this? These scenes are the thematic points drummed into you when you're at your most vulnerable, like the movie has undressed you just enough so that now you're porky-pigging.
It's porno neorealism—Candid Camera, if you're more comfortable with that.
Ever heard of Jamie Gillis? He's a porn actor and director credited with creating gonzo porn, the kind of thing "Bang Bus" purports to be—there's no "story," the performers aren't "acting," and the filmmaker is on the scene. On the Prowl, released in 1989, is the first entry in the genre. Will Sloan wrote a piece on Gillis for online mag Hazlitt in which he describes the video. Sloan writes about Gillis and a porn performer named Renee Morgan prowling San Francisco looking for participants. They find two, Carl and Shawn. Both men are supposed to be involved in the scene, but things don't go according to plan:
When the deed is done, Shawn and Carl pull up their pants. Shawn looks energized. Carl is speechless. "Carl, you want anything? A little head or anything?” asks Gillis. "The little guy won't get hard," admits Carl. Gillis replies, "Hey, nine out of ten guys under these circumstances won't ever get hard, so believe me, y'know…"
"So when will this film be out?" asks Shawn. "I'll tell you the truth," says Gillis, "we don't even know if this is gonna be a film. We're just fucking around tonight. It's never been done. So if it works, we get enough footage, y'know…"
"There's nothing to worry about anyway," says Renee, "because the percentage of people that you'd know that would see it is, like, next to none."
"I'm sure, right Carl?" Gillis laughs. "Anyway, you're obviously just off the street—an innocent guy seduced by this wicked woman—nobody's going to think you did anything bad." Carl looks a million miles away.
Glazer used non-professional actors in many of the van scenes with Johannson; he sat in the back, in the dark, unnoticed. When these scenes wrapped, some of the men didn't give Glazer permission to use their footage. But some did, and that's what you get when you watch Under the Skin. Even if you don't know beforehand, you can tell something's off. The camera is restricted to unflattering low-angle shots, often from the dashboard, that you wouldn't see in a movie starring an A-lister like ScarJo. The faces, even hers, are often obstructed or mediated by a mirror. It's porno neorealism—Candid Camera, if you're more comfortable with that. The dialogue is uncrafted and choppy. It's super fucking uncomfortable. It is, for lack of a better word, too real.
For lack of a better world, Johansson's character departs ours at the film's end, and in a really violent way. All the power you seem to think she has turns out to be meaningless. The men in this movie ultimately make the decisions. It's, like, an allegory, or something.
Four Pins Rating: 4/5 Weird Boners
Ross Scarano is a Deputy Editor At Complex. You can follow him on Twitter here.