I finally got to see Under the Skin, the Jonathan Glazer direct, Scarlett Johansson starring, film from last year. Which as a summation is basically about Scarjo cruising Scotland in a van picking up men to harvest for her Alien buddies. But through this simple structure, themes of beauty, body horror, race, transgender, gender, sex-death, and celebrity build themselves through the fabric of the film. Fwiw, I’m going to write about the film in totality here, so there will be spoilers–though I don’t personally believe this a movie that can be spoiled–it doesn’t really hinge upon any kind of surprises. But some are very sensitive to that sort of thing.
One of the interesting things in reading about Under the Skin afterwards was that part of how they filmed it was really just putting Scarjo in this van with hidden cameras and just have her roll around Scotland picking up men. That process in and of itself is really interesting, because the selections were kind of directed by men who were behind Scarlett, but she had sort of final say–and there’s an interesting element overall to the film in terms of how her character invites men into dangerous proximity to herself, and so even though her character largely sees these men as a kind of prey, the actor herself, has to be cognizant of who she is picking up, and herself as a potential victim. Couple this with Scarlett’s celebrity–and there is the added tension, particularly in the scenes when she is outside of the van, that her celebrity will be uncovered, and then the situation will become unmanageable. And there is definitely I think a way that you can parse this film as very much engaging the dis-humanism of fame. And the isolation of becoming a pop-culture icon. There is a compound threat in that existence, even as there is a kind of dissociation–because you know that love or hate–neither of those things are really based upon who you are, but upon who people think you are, and the extremity of their reactions to you are going to vacillate wildly based upon an artifice that you live inside of.
This separation of image and interior person is explicitly manifested in Under the Skin, because these Aliens wander around our world wearing our skins–but they are not per se our skins–and in fact they are their skins. But I think that the disjunction between skin/outward appearance, and the interior identity I think fundamentally make one of the reads of Scarlett’s character to be that of a transgender story. Fundamentally with Under the Skin you are talking about a film that is about the disjunction between one’s identity and their gender expression. In this case, Johansson’s identity is that of an alien which may or may not identify it’s existence in terms of gender–but through the skin the alien lives under, the alien experiences life as a kind of heteronormative, cisgender, female bodied human. And what’s more, you see the threat posed in the alien’s existence, were it to ever appear outside of that norm within cisgender society. In fact, the moment that Johansson reveals herself as anything but a white cisgender female, she is instantly burned to death.
This violent tightrope of identity politics extends itself further when we start talking about notions of beauty, and body that the film also directly engages. One of the more famous and memorable scenes in the movie is when Johansson picks up a character played by Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, and because of this has a non-normative body that forces him to go grocery shopping at night, with his face covered up by a hood and in general live a very isolated and solitary life. But Johansson’s character because she is an alien, doesn’t see beauty in such strict terms, and instead sees Pearson as beautiful. So much of our conceptions that a person like Pearson isn’t beautiful, are based upon the coded language of “freak” that has been beaten into our brains culturally as something shameful and to be avoided in our associations. We are taught to see non-normative bodies as ugly, or disturbing. But fundamentally, there is no difference between Pearson’s large lips, or Kim Kardashian’s booty. Both are just extra-normal expressions of the human body, and beauty fundamentally is the extension of our parameters of about the possibilities of the normal. Beauty is by it’s nature non-normative. True beauty horrifies us and challenges our perceptions of time. In this way, aesthetic ugliness and beauty are the same thing. In fact, when we unpact ugliness as an idea, we see that largely it is the attachment of evil to external bodied factors. The supposition that the crone is a threat to us because her wrinkled pock marked face must portend a core evilness that separates her from us. We do the same thing with beauty, in that there is a supposed goodness behind beauty. But the truth of the matter is that if what we are really talking about is goodness vs. evil–then the raised awareness of our post-information times should easily allows us to surmise that goodness and evilness do not in fact express themselves in the body, and that because of this what we have traditionally seen as “ugly” is not in fact ugly–but simply part of the spectrum of non-normative human features on which the things we also consider to be “beauty” also rest.
The beauty in the scene between Pearson and Johansson is that for the first time Pearson is allowed to be seen. So much of his experience that he relates involves people looking away–but Johansson does not look away. She examines every inch of his skin. To her, he is as human and as interesting as any other human. Perhaps more so because she decides that he has beautiful hands.
This theme of allowing oneself to be seen–or the theme of being seen, also applies to Johansson, who even though men look at her constantly–it is only through the lens of their desire, and they never really truly see her, or make her feel seen. It isn’t until after dropping Pearson off at the skinning factory, that she sees herself in a mirror, and in that moment allows herself to be seen by herself in the same way she looked at Pearson. Her subsequent exploration of her body, and skin is really transfiguring to watch. She twists and turns her body in front of the mirror examining it’s folds and textures. She tries to eat dessert. She is fundamentally exploring what it means to live inside of this alien skin, and the way that this skin is a part of her in some way because it is the vessel through which she is transversing experience. Rather than reject the skin she lives in, she goes on something of a journey to understand the skin, and herself, and to try and see herself outside of the way that human society forces her to.
Remember she looks how she looks fundamentally because she knows it’s pleasing to the prey she wishes to attract. Initially I think it is impossible for her to see herself outside of the objectification patriarchal culture imposes upon her, and her journey is her realization of a world outside of that gaze. If the rules of herself in terms of men, no longer apply, then what to make of this body, it’s curves, marks, and hair?
The heartbreaking thing is that this journey is interrupted and obstructed by a man who tries to rape her. Her loss of awareness of herself in terms of male gaze, only resulted in her becoming vulnerable to male rape culture. This man actually rips her skin, and as her skin falls off of her, she is able to look back up at herself, and what is inside of herself–she is able at that moment to both see herself and herself inside herself–and whatever illumination she discovers in that moment is dashed by the rapist, now in the sci-fi role of male “kill it with fire” hero, as he throws gasoline on her and then lights her on fire.
As she stumbles on fire out into a clearing and disintegrates into a black cloud that dissipates into the snow dripped clouds above it brings up another theme of the film and that is humans and the world around them. Under the Skin is shot after shot of humanoids made small against the backdrop of the swirling nature around them. Whether it is rolling hills blotting out the horizon, huge crashing waves, snow, or fog–the landscapes which of course recall romantic landscape paintings of John Martin. These are life-death plays through landscape that is beyond the scale of mortal perception, of which we are just ants on the tip of a finger. And there is an implication that along with Johansson’s journey to understand her skin, there is a parallel journey where she comes to see her place in nature–she sees her body as a part of nature, not as a barrier creating it’s alienation. This is interesting because there is a ton of art and witch burnings situated around the relationship between women and nature. A recent prominent example which shares with Under the Skin the visual lineage of the woman fading into nature is Antichrist.
This of course introduces a third vantage point on the ending, which ties into the other two–which is that Johansson isn’t being burned as an alien, she’s being burned as a witch. Which is to say, the embodiment of the female threat which exists too close to nature for men’s comfort, and because of that may possess powers beyond men’s control, and therefore must be “killed with fire”. The intermingling of Johansson’s form with nature, and the subsequent immolation she suffers because of that consciousness. It’s interesting to think about this because it is ostensibly pairing up our fears of Aliens post-Xenomorph, with our history of witch burnings. Of course in Alien, the xenomorph and it’s subsequent horror offshoots is terrifying to men because it introduces the threat of their own rape and impregnation. Their fear of loss of control over the traditional gender tropes over which they have controlled the world for thousands of years. And with witches, as I said, the fear is that by being more in accordance with nature, they might be tapped into a power beyond male understand, and again threaten patriarchal structure. Under the Skin marries these two ideas as part of the same canon of literature and gives us an Alien-Witch. Which is quite exciting, even if the end result is really just the heart breaking continued violence against women.
The last theme that really struck me with Under the Skin is that of black skin. For the whole movie, you are really only talking about a world of white skin. I don’t know what the racial demographics in Scotland are, but by shooting there and shooting who they shot–Under the Skin really doesn’t depict or show people of color at all. Until the end, when the black skin of Johansson’s alien hits the air. And almost immediately, a white dude rushes over to set it on fire. Even though it’s not a major major theme of the film, I do think ONE of the themes of the film is the suppression of blackness, fear of blackness. It’s not without noting that when dudes pass on to the skin losing spot at Johansson’s house, it is a room of infinite blackness which seems to devour their whiteness. What is at play here is that ostensibly what you are looking at is a race of black aliens hunting down white people because they prize that white skin–because it makes it easier for them to operate within human, white dominated, culture. Which is loaded as hell in a movie that again, has no actual black people in it.
I could go on for days even past all of this. I haven’t even really intellectually explored this in terms of life-death, apocalypse, myth–so on and so forth. Beyond all of these themes, the raw aesthetics of Under the Skin are more than enough for me. As I talked about above, the huge John Martin-ish landscapes, the sharp contrasting color values, the floating folding skin bags, the red light at the end of the tunnel, the iris. The film is an exercise in the sort of slow motion surreality of third wave music videos fed through a coherent 2 hour film world. The iconic styling of Johansson as well with her mop of feathered black hair, red lipstick, the animal skin jacket she wears over her human skin, the tight acid wash high waisted jeans, and heeled boots. To say nothing of the sort of very basic red sweater–there’s more to be said about the clothes under the clothes above the skin, and the role the clothes play as she is constantly removing them and then putting them back on. It s a performance of dressing and undressing. Undressing both while being watched, and not being watched. Dressing alone. Putting on makeup. All of these things are part of their own theme.
And then there is the music itself which is done by Mica Levi, and is this drone of sort of sex-death drums and metallic screeches. It weirdly drug me into a huge William Basinski listening binge, I think just for the merits of looped dirge music. It’s interesting because the music sort of lays across several different genres. The alien-sci-fi space music, the sort of sexy strip club get low music, and then a kind of more pastoral overtone to blend it coherently together into the film’s greater aesthetic, which allows it to sort of slink in and out while never overpowering the film’s visuals. It helps that the film’s visuals themselves are very musical, and rhythmic. It’s a part of this modern kind of score you are seeing on the kind of outskirts of the major Hollywood pop music fueled film thing–in that these soundtracks are kind of about the fractured disconnect to the traditional movie score. They’re all sort of broken, fragmentary, and post-apocalyptic in nature. They’re also fragile and mumbled in nature. None of the testicular bravado of a Morricone score. And none of the sort of anthemic moments of like Liv Tyler’s navel and Aerosmith. It’s weird to separate out Levi’s score, and have it at the bottom here, because in a film as spare as this in terms of sound and dialogue, it really is the best supporting actor to Johansson’s performance.
Johansson herself, I’ve always liked as an actor. I think she has an ability on the screen to project an unrevealed knowledge. You have to kind of lean forward a little bit whenever she speaks because it’s rarely above a low tone. I also find her performances, even in blockbuster films, to have a certain sophistication that I think is rarely appreciated. I think for instance her performance in Michael Bay’s The Island absolutely makes that one of my favorite Michael Bay films. She editoralizes that whole film through these parodied expressions of the archetype of the dumb blonde side care in the hollywood picture. It’s pretty hilarious and pointed stuff. And though she does a lot with just her delivery, a lot of the power of her delivery comes from her body language, which is what makes her more of a serious actor than a comedian like say Aubrey Plaza–who I love and think is hilarious–but I think that Johansson in all of her films gives a total kind of performance that goes beyond just being able to deadpan lines like Daria. Under the Skin is an extremely physical role, and much of what happens in the film isn’t said, so it relies on how Johansson looks at others, how she looks at herself, how she touches herself–and her core strength as an actor in terms of holding untold knowledge–is a huge strength in a film like this, because the knowledge her character holds is literally unknowable and un-understandable for us. And what’s more, her character is performing a lot of the time for her victims–so she is performing a performance for us as well, and I thought she did perfectly for this role.