Two Notes on “Under The Skin”
I really like Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under The Skin, as do many other people who are inclined to write about such things. As a result, I’ve held off on making any significant commentary on it until I finally had My Take on the movie, the take that would completely reframe how people watched the movie for generations to come.
This never came to pass, but I did develop a couple of thoughts I wished to share. If I were a more talented writer I would find a way to meaningfully connect the two, but I am exactly as talented as I am, so they will stand apart for the purposes of clarity.
One way to understand the premise of Under The Skin is as follows: an alien appearing to be a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowls the streets of Glasgow, picking up unsuspecting men, bringing them back to some liminal house-base under the guise of sex before suspending, mutilating, and processing them for some unspecified purpose. In the Michel Faber novel on which the film is based the purpose is meat harvesting, though the film declines to make this clear.
All of the men she dupes, and indeed nearly all roles in the film, are played by local non-actors. There is nothing new or radical about this, and the first impulse — the one that demands we ask “why?”—doesn’t lead us to anything interesting. Instead, we should examine the effect this decision has, as it’s one that just about every viewer of the film was in tune with, whether or not they were aware of it.
Scarlett Johansson, being a movie star, possesses two things that accompany more or less all movie stars: extremely high levels of recognizability and very good looks. These striking factors mean that no moviegoer could ever fully divorce one of her characters from her, and Under The Skin doesn’t really ask us to try either. Johansson wields a pretty convincing English accent, but it’s still her.
What this means that she, Johansson, spends most of the movie looking exceptionally out of place. No offense to the very capable Glaswegians who filled out most of the rest of the cast, but looking at normal people onscreen always serves to remind us that Johansson’s character is not normal. We know this textually because she is an alien in the guise of a human; we know this extratextually because she is an inescapably recognizable face in a sea of anonymous ones.
The effect here — to implictly re-emphasize and complicate a central theme or fact of a movie’s logic—is one that all elements of the filmmaking process should hope to achieve. I would hope that the lighting, sound, visuals, and, indeed, casting of every film works together to achieve a gestalt whole that would be worse off without any of its constituent elements. This is pretty basic stuff, but I want to highlight it here simply because of how rarely it’s pulled off this well.
Take recent Best Picture winner and very good movie, Nomadland, as an example. The movie’s principal performer, Frances McDormand, delivers the audience a great 110 minutes of acting surrounded by non-actors who all do an equally impressive job. Here, though, the effect is confusing: McDormand, like the others, is supposed to be a modern-day nomad, and yet she is Frances McDormand. She plays her character well, yes, but she remains herself.
The non-actors, particularly Swankie, only serve to emphasize this through their own excellence. Every anecdote shared about their experiences is delivered with such warmth and truth that the result is almost always a highlighting of much artifice is to be found in McDormand’s character.
This becomes especially egregious with the introduction of a quasi-love interest, played by David Strathairn. Though Strathairn may not have the star power of McDormand, a large proportion of viewers will take very little time to recognize him as also being a Hollywood actor. Though his role is diminutive in the movie’s first half, we simply know that he’ll be back: he’s a Real Actor, after all.
This is not to trash on Nomadland, which is a good movie that, by all accounts, director Chloé Zhao took great pains to craft with the utmost sincerity. Instead, I wanted to draw attention towards just how much can be achieved in a movie like Under The Skin when disparate parts converge together towards something cohesive and, ultimately, numinous.
When I earlier attempted to describe what Scarlett Johansson’s alien does to the men she attracts, I clumsily used a series of words to describe a process delivered to the audience only through haunting visuals and highly obscure audio — simply put, you need to watch it in order to really understand.
On another note, there’s a very disturbing video clip from one of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries where a Cutthroat eel mistakenly wanders into a brine pool on the ocean floor, where the high levels of salinity cause it to go into toxic shock. It writhes, twitches, contorts itself into unrecognizable shapes: it’s a series of movements that seem completely involuntary and unnatural, but the viewer eventually realizes that, while the shock is greatly interfering with the eel’s mobility, these motions are largely attempts by the stunned creature to escape, which it eventually does.
This natural episode resembles, right down to the color palette, a similarly eerie sequence from Under The Skin. The audience has just seen Johansson bring home her second male victim; he myopically undresses as she leads him into a pool of fluid in which he eventually finds himself fully nude and unable to escape — indeed, there doesn’t even appear to be anywhere to escape to.
He blinks with great effort as though equal parts shocked and exhausted, and firm control of his extremities seems to elude him. Once fully suspended in this solution, he sees Johansson’s first victim in an even more fragile state than he. The first man’s skin seems strangely loose-fitting; some of the flesh that should be trapped underneath has gone limp or escaped entirely. The second man reaches out towards the first, and the two touch hands for a moment before the first man opens his mouth to release an inaudible scream and floats away. A loud, metallic sound is heard, and the first man is suddenly reduced to a sheet, a wrapper made merely of skin. This sleeve, moments ago a man, floats around the screen for a moment before a sharp cut to what appears to be some kind of foundry, at which presumably the first man’s innards are being processed to some unknown end.
As the man’s body is being emptied, it convulses: we cannot know if this is his reaction to the pain, the simple impact of the process on the body, or a futile attempt at resistance. Like the eel, the lines between agency, reaction, and compulsion are all blurred such that with each motion we cannot know if we are to hope for the subject’s escape or resign ourselves to horror at his fate.
In the film, there is an unwelcome erotic component to this. The men are where they are because they expected sex, and instead they’ve landed themselves in a strange liminal realm where physical agency is muted and that which is interior cannot be safely kept that way. Of course, I use this language intentionally: there are parallels to be made here with the strange moments of vulnerability that accompany the male sexual experience writ large.
It cannot be any coincidence, either, that the first man only meets his untimely end when the second arrives. What is it that seems to precipitate the former’s demise? The touch of the latter. That contact, the unwelcome presence of another male during that moment of one’s own sexual shame and vulnerability, is enough to completely collapse the self. The woman here may be the predator, the facilitator of these captivites, but it is ultimately the precariousness of the male’s sexual self that delivers the death blow.
Sex is full of movements that challenge a meaningful distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary, and it culminates in a moment whose power is matched only by the feelings of emptiness and fear that follow. Many consider Under The Skin to be an exploration of what women look like as predators, but I think this insufficient. Glazer is not asking just us to consider the sexually predatory woman but instead the singularly untenable male sexual self, the man whose with a stable veneer and an unstable erotic interior — what might occur when the two meet? Glazer tells us that the latter crumbles.
The horror of this sequence comes not only from its parallels with the eel—the repulsion that comes with not being able to assign meaning or intention to the motions of another—but its parallels with the reality of human behavior. It’s right into the heart of this space, between the recognizable and the unrecognizable, the comprehensible and the elusive, the mundane and the eerie, that Under The Skin drags us.