You know it. It doesn’t happen all the time but when it does you know it. A film begins and from its very first scenes you know you will never forget it.
This is how I felt about Jonathan Glazer’s mysterious film Under the Skin when I saw it at the end of June. Mesmerizing imagery, a contained and compelling and surprising performance by Scarlett Johansson, an eerie and grating score by Mica Levi, a thought-provoking premise – all the elements lined up from the start to make a film I was connecting with, deeply, on many levels.
I walked out of the cinema quiet, stunned, a little overwhelmed. In the days that followed, I let it ruminate, percolate and integrate with my DNA. I said to myself, I need some time to turn my feelings into thoughts, my thoughts into ideas, my ideas into arguments. I avoided writing about it because I said I was still thinking about it. I made a mistake.
It’s been nearly a month now since that screening and while the film remains firmly lodged under my skin, my inability to sit down and actually write about it seems to haunt me even more. I had so many feelings, thoughts, ideas and potential arguments, and I didn’t articulate a word about any of them when I should have.
Somewhere in between that screening and today I have neglected all the things I’d hoped to write. Other projects and life in general got in the way. I failed to keep adequate notes. I ran out of time. I basically failed.
What follows, then, is an exercise in failed film criticism. It’s proof that while writing about a film long after you have seen it is certainly possible, with a film like Under the Skin, where the impact on me was so visceral and immediate, it’s not advisable. The only adequate response was an urgent one. Waiting was sheer folly. Waiting has almost left me wordless.
Any criticism I write, until I revisit the film, can now only exist as a series of fragments on my feelings and thoughts, ideas and barely formed arguments. But maybe that’s okay after all. Maybe this isn’t really a failure since I was never interested in trying to ascertain just what Glazer’s film is really about. That’s not my style of criticism. Maybe the unconnected bits and pieces that follow maintain the film’s essential mystique and its continuing appeal for me as an impenetrable work of art, a full-throttle sensory experience. And in that way, it’s the best kind of cinema.
Fragment 1: Femininity can be an alienating construct
A nameless, genderless alien (Scarlett Johansson) takes on the human bodily form of a recently deceased female. But does she know what to do with that body? How does she learn?
Women learn about femininity from other women. We look and evaluate each other’s surfaces, sometimes harshly. Mostly harshly.
The alien is a predator who flirts and seduces with little or no touch. Gender is a performance. She has absorbed all the right moves; she knows all the right things to say to get the men into her van and to get them to go home with her.
She looks sexy. She inspires sexual desire. She is successful at giving men what they want.
Glazer establishes the culturally produced nature of femininity and feminine attraction early in his film. Recently landed, Johansson’s alien wanders around a department store. She’s already in the black shag wig. She gets some tight jeans, a sweater with a plunging neckline and a shabby faux fur jacket. She observes other women. She makes her choices from the choices that are available, on sale.
The most important addition to her performance is a full, red-lipped pout.
Glazer’s camera lingers around the cosmetic counters. It watches women trying out new colours, applying make-up. We watch and so does Johansson’s alien. She learns to do the same. Back in the white van she paints on a bright, seductive mouth. They are lips that declare she is here. She is ready for action.
Embodiment can be alienating. In constructing a feminine identity we play with the surface of the body. But many women do not have comfortable or easy relationships with their own bodies.
Johansson is playing with her own star persona here. Hers is a body that we have looked at and consumed for many years. When she stands naked before a mirror, with no glamorizing lighting or flattering angles, and examines her body, the alien is not only discovering her own skin, but Johansson is also removing any sense of otherworldliness about herself. Still beautiful, she is rendered utterly ordinary. Just like the rest of us.
Fragment 2: Disrupting the male gaze
The alien seductress hunts in a dark dreamscape driving her van through a Glasgow always sheathed in drizzling rain.
There is an eerie, unsettling tone to these scenes.
Fixed cameras were hidden in the van – Glazer directing in the back – as Johansson drove around, collecting real Glaswegian men. The initial conversations, with their rather artificial flirtations, still have a rather authentic feel to them. A comment, perhaps, on the face we show to others to get what we want. Her motives will soon be revealed. What pushes the men into the van? Her lipstick? Do the men want to see what’s under her clothes? They are lonely and vulnerable. It’s no less unnerving to watch them fall into her trap than it would be if she were a man collecting lonely women wandering the drizzle soaked streets. (But would a woman feel lust and desire for a man who is slowly following her down the street in a suspicious looking van? Would she feel something else?)
Johansson’s alien is not a passive female body. She disrupts the male gaze. She watches and pursues. They follow. They become passive. They disintegrate. She becomes stronger.
Fragment 3: Sex and death
What does she need their bodies for? Is she feeding on them? What is the purpose?
The men are willing. They never think they are at risk.
She lures them to their end in a place she calls ‘home’. They strip and follow her, in various states of undress, in a dark, cavernous womb-like space. The eerie score is especially jarring and effective here. They follow her into a sticky, inky pool, some visibly aroused, still thinking until the last moment that they are about to get lucky with a beautiful, sexy woman.
What’s brought them to this point? Is it men’s belief that they can have any woman they want? Is it something more sinister?
They’ve come for sex, but they find death. Total annihilation.
Fragment 4: Empathy makes us human
Body, mind and soul – how to connect the body and mind? How to connect the body to the soul?
Emotions can be primitive and can grow from our bodily experience.
To be human is to be vulnerable. She is not human.
What is under the skin? Our humanity exists beyond the limitations of our physical experience. Empathy makes us human. The body is a disguise, a disposable shell.
But our skin does make us human – the body’s experience cannot be ignored. Bodies, female and male, located in the world, experience the world in very different ways.
It’s a growing self-awareness that changes us.
The scene on the beach is shattering for its absence of empathy. It was so powerful and so difficult to watch. A woman is drowning, a rescue is attempted, and a baby is left, crying alone on the beach. Day turns to night. The Scottish weather turns nasty. It won’t end well. Johansson’s alien feels nothing and moves on.
Later, a soul flickers into life under her skin. She has picked up a disfigured man – a man who cannot escape the reality of his body – and catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror a conscience appears. She lets him escape and the hunter becomes the hunted.
Bodies are fragile things. So are our nerve endings. She learns this, as she wanders alone around a hostile, alien land. She gets closer to who she is, while discovering the limitations of her own embodiment.
Fragment 5: The finale
Human brutality is revealed in the destructive nature of relations between the sexes.
Skin is shed. She is destroyed.
Ashes and dust. Into the atmosphere.