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Under the Skin

Film (2013). Film4 and BFI present in association with Silver Reel, Creative Scotland and FinnNation Entertainment a Nick Wechsler/J W Films production. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer, based on Under the Skin (2000) by Michel Faber. Cast includes Scarlett Johansson and Adam Pearson. 108 minutes. Colour.

There are two films here. The first Under the Skin, which is of less interest in the context of this encyclopedia, is a work of art without specific provenance, during the course of which a series of stunning but seemingly inexplicable events, initially abstracted from any narrative cues, gradually unfolds in sf terms. A mysterious motorcyclist retrieves a dead woman from a ditch. An unnamed female figure (Johansson), after an inexplicable moment of rapport with the corpse, cruises the back streets of Glasgow, tricking male pickups into fatal encounters, taking them "home" where, weirdly mesmerized by lust, dropping their clothes until they are entirely naked, they follow her across a dark floor that bears her weight but through which they sink into some sort of tank filled with glutinous liquid, where they dissolve, becoming scraps of skin and bone. Clearly by this point some rationale is intuited, perhaps along Horror in SF lines; or in the absence of that, for no explanation is in fact uttered aloud, some awareness that some sort of sf-like narrative is unfolding. Certainly the viewer begins to suspect by now that "Johansson" is an Alien. But it is also very clear that she is becoming more and more distressed, perhaps out of compunction after having beguiled into her lair a man with no experience of women because he is facially disfigured, then letting him go; or perhaps she is simply beginning to suffer a sense of intolerable estrangement from the human condition she is mimicking. After having Sex with a sympathetic human male she suffers a panic attack, perhaps because the act of penetration has damaged her jerrybuilt disguise; and after a second sexual encounter, in which she is raped, her skin does indeed fray off, revealing a featureless humanoid form which stumbles through the woods until the rapist sets it afire and it burns, uttering not a sound, into ash [for Skinned see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

The second Under the Skin, in which every scene is underpinned by an sf rationale from the very beginning, is an inspired and transfigurative gloss on Michel Faber's novel Under the Skin (2000), in which a quadruped Alien, surgically modified into human female form, seduces male humans into following her to the factory farm where, decorticated, they will be fed up like geese to generate an immensely valuable pate de foie gras for gourmets on other planets. The film begins as a motorcyclist, who is her minder, picks up a female corpse for her to skin (perhaps literally), seemingly as part of her initiation routine (it is clear in this pure sf version of the film that she has been instructed in her role). As the credit sequence has already intimated, Under the Skin will be a film dominated by gaze: Johannson's seemingly blank but in fact utterly distant gaze upon the wet greyed-down rubbish-heap subtopia of Glasgow beyond Centrum, and upon the human males she addresses with memorized come-on phrases in order to entice them into her mortal trap. This gaze has something of the faux neutrality of a verité camera; and in fact (see below) several sequences featured non-actors who did not know they were being shot. She cruises the streets, attends a disco, entraps human males, takes them to a secret building where they sink benumbed through the floor into a liquid bath that dissolves them into nutritive mulch. (One shot, inexplicable without prior knowledge of Faber's Ur text, shows human remains swirling down a chute into what might be a storage tank; perhaps these gobs will be dried into pemmican.) She engages in a more extensive conversation than usual with a man whose face has been deformed by neurofibromatosis, and lets him go (her minder tracks him to his home and kills him). In a state of gripping estrangement she examines her naked body. She goes walkabout. She is picked up by a human male who eventually, with her consent, makes love to her. The camera tracks the tentative movements of her imago-like long fingers tracing his skin as though she were learning how to advance to another state of being. But a healthy moult is impermissible: after sex, she stares agitatedly at some damage between her legs, and bolts. In a nearby forest preserve, she is raped by a logger. As she runs away from him, her skin begins to split, revealing the androgynous Alien beneath the crackling epidermis. The logger pours oil over it or her, sets her alight. She has no words for this. Meanwhile her minder cycles back and forth across the barrens near Glasgow, unable to find her. Planet Earth turns her to ash.

Viewed without knowledge of its sf frame, which shapes and occasionally circumscribes the film, Under the Skin conveys an uncannily penetrating sense of mysterium tremendum, the ungraspable numinous otherness of the Sublime beyond all petty Transcendence: which may be asking a lot of a movie. But that sense of illimitable unhumanness, which suffuses every shot, is gained without evoking time-honoured Clichés of the immobile shot; for in this film nothing is still, everything is conveyed in the end through the implicit movement of story beneath the skin. We see the eyes of Scarlett Johannson not seeming human, we see them bound to worlds we can never grasp, returning nothing to our gaze but what we take. We see these movements because Under the Skin is exactly a movie, even when it seems storyless to viewers unfamiliar with the book. The surreally agitated denizens of Glasgow in this light seem terrifyingly beyond comprehension, for we are forced to pretend to gaze upon wretched congestions of humans in action through her "Martian" eyes: "... everyone's pain has a different smell" – Craig Raine, "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" (23 December 1977 The New Statesman). This terror is made all the more vivid through the use of non-actors who represent themselves, which (not being actors) they do not know how to do: in their interactions with Johannson they seem more alien than she does. This self-poisoning ecstasy of the contemplation of the Other certainly persists even after the story becomes clearly visible to those unfamiliar with the book, though Jonathan Glazer never vitiates Johannson's alienness with the kind of plotty sentimentality that so badly dates The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), with David Bowie, who is far too human under the mask.

But even understood as a film which only seems sui generis until it falls back into the SF Megatext, Under the Skin is always more than a gloss on the 2000 novel. It may be as simple as the fact that with a story of the fantastic to tell, Glazer does not have to demean his scarifying visuals by treating them as metaphorical. Under the Skin is autonomous because, following the inherent non-allegorical bent of Fantastika as a whole, it is no more than told, even when we know the story. Johannson's disintegration is not a metaphor of alienation: it is nothing more or less than Johannson disintegrating, moment by moment, sight by sight, as her literal skin begins to shred. Much may be learned from seeing this happen (lessons taken are up to us), but nothing is taught. Under the Skin is pure story: not a lesson but the thing told. [JC]


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 22:49 pm on 23 June 2024.