not in our stars, but in ourselves
Appropriately, ironically, whatever the case may be, I appear to have gotten myself into a bit of a Kubrickian bender. Not Kubrick himself, per se; but I’ve clearly been watching a fair amount of film that’s either about or inspired by Mr. Bright And Cheery himself. That trend continues with Under the Skin, which sort of came and went, commercially, but which solidified itself on the top-ten lists of many critics (and of my boyfriend, who insisted that I finally watch it – thanks, mister!) in 2014. Among the few who saw it, Jonathan Glazer’s movie was and is deeply polarizing: most truly serious, bizarro movies are, after all; it’s almost always the poshlosty nostrums that end up being “universally” acclaimed.
Somewhere near Glasgow, a mysterious motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) dismounts, walks down an embankment, walks back up with a dead female body slung over his shoulder, and puts the body into a waiting white van. In a blank white room, a naked woman (Scarlett Johansson) takes the clothes off the body, and puts them on. From there, the woman goes around the city, observing. She watches people keenly, and begins to focus on men who seem to be alone. She asks for directions, asks if she can give the man a lift, makes eyes at him, and brings him back to her place. As she undresses and backs up, beckoning him along for what seems to be a surefire sexy time, the man sinks down into a strange black goo. She repeats this process a few times, but seems to grow weary of it; after she picks up a lonely man with neurofibramatosis (Adam Pearson) – so ashamed of his facial disfigurement that he wears a hood and goes to the grocery store in the dead of night – she decides to let him go rather than allow him to sink into whatever mysterious abyss is in her house. The motorcycle man, however, catches up with the escapee and dispatches with him. At this point, the woman goes rogue: she abandons her van near the beach, and goes out into the world (the Scottish Highlands, at any rate). There, she meets a kind man (Michael Moreland) who lets her borrow his coat and invites her back to his flat to warm up. They watch TV, listen to music, and go on a walk through some castle ruins. It’s a lovely little whirlwind romance that culminates in an attempt at coitus – but alas. The woman leaves, and goes for a walk through a forest. She encounters another man (Dave Acton) who advises her to be careful lest she slip; she encounters him again when, as she rests in a shelter, he starts feeling up her legs. She bolts out and tries to outrun him, but he catches up and tries to rape her. In the ensuing violence, he tears off some skin from her back, revealing her strange black body underneath. He races away, disgusted, and the woman stumbles away, removing her disguise. Before she gets far, the man douses her in gasoline and lights her on fire. Finis.
Glazer and his cinematographer, Daniel Landin, employ quite a bit of hidden camera work with the woman in her van and out on the streets. This is because, with few exceptions, the interactions the woman has with her various male passengers (and victims) are improvised; indeed, most of the men were unaware at the time that they were being filmed. They were simply reacting, with their Glaswegian directness, to a beautiful woman who looked like a movie star and spoke like Nigella Lawson. It rings true because it is true; not to dismiss the value of in-studio perfectionism, but for a film like this, about an alien creature whose prime directive is to lure unsuspecting men to their doom, it’s an inspired and effective choice to rely on the honesty of the red-blooded Scotsman when he thinks he has a chance with someone who looks like Scarlett Johansson. In addition to these secretly monitored interactions, however, Landin makes frequent use of a camera acting as distant observer. Often, it glides right over the people it’s passing, never stopping – but we realize it’s passing over one type of person, more than any other: the lone male figure. We begin to observe them the way the woman does, the way a serial killer would: searching for prey, searching for a victim, searching for someone who won’t put up a fight or be missed any time soon. It’s rare for a film to engage at length with viewing the world through a serial killer’s eyes, and probably downright unique for that film’s serial killer to be a female (well, to appear to be female). The way Under the Skin does this is chilling.
And yet – we don’t see the woman as a monster. She’s programmed or instructed to hunt and to assimilate to her environment, but – like any conscious creature – she grows curious about this new world. She has a few ready-made questions and conversation topics, but when she wanders deeper into a discussion with a new person, she either answers questions with questions or she goes quiet. Johansson provides endless nuance, as we see the thoughts pinging around behind that too-perfect mask of a face. Not emotion: thought. We see the ways that human interaction and culture make her decide to abandon her directive: she finds these humans fascinating, and wants to learn more about them – more than she can learn by (almost literally) honey-trapping them. The desire to abandon her mission takes root slowly; I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly where and when. It might begin when she observes a young family at the beach – mom, dad, baby, and dog – as the ocean claims them all: the dog goes into the water, mom goes after the dog, dad goes after mom, baby is left behind, and the furiously churning sea carries them all out, far away. It might begin when she trips on a busy walkway, and half a dozen men stop to make sure she’s all right. It might begin in earnest when she speaks with the disfigured man, and understands that he’s much lonelier and sadder than any of the other men she’s met. In any event, it’s gradual; dawning realizations usually are. It seems that she really likes the Good Samaritan, after her fashion; it seems like she’s truly disappointed to realize that she’s incapable of having sex with him. And she experiences the panic of a prey animal when she understands that the man in the forest is after her. Her method of hunting is considerably gentler than the man’s: her victims’ last moments are spent in giddy anticipation, punctuated by a brief moment of confusion as they sink down; his victim’s last moment is spent in sheer terror and pain. I suppose you could try to make a case for her death as some sort of justly deserved punishment, but I don’t think so. One hopes that the motorcyclist will find the forest creep and destroy him – if only to keep him from preying on any other lonely forest wanderers – but whatever happens, the woman’s time is up. For now.
In short, like most of the better sci-fi films, Under the Skin poses more questions than it answers. We don’t know what the endgame of all this seduction-and-suction might be. Food? Research? Orders from a distant planet run by misandrists? We never find out why the woman abandons her post, so to speak. We suspect, but can’t be entirely certain, that this same situation has happened before (remember the dead girl at the beginning), and will happen again. It doesn’t matter. It never matters.