Under the Skin (2013)

A little while ago I read this great article on the cinematic influences of the game Kentucky Route Zero, which got me thinking that I should be expanding my exposure to and ability to talk about film, particularly with regard to influencing work on Moonshot or other creative projects. So I’m starting an informal Cinema Club (think Book Club) and hope to write a bit about the films I watch and what I took away from them.

I picked UNDER THE SKIN to start because I’ve been a fan of director Jonathan Glazer’s work, and because it had just been released on streaming and seems to be showing up in the most popular charts for various services. This may be related to leading actress Scarlett Johansson’s nude scenes, but I laugh to think of the reaction anyone who watched this looking for softcore thrills must have had.

The film itself is plodding and has very little in the way of dialogue. Scarlett, playing an alien wearing a human shroud, drives around in a cargo van attempting to initiate conversations with various men on the streets of Scotland. Apparently these were mostly true interactions - the men were informed of the movie and whom they were talking to after the fact. She lures them back to a dilapidated building containing a dark doorframe gating an inky black space. Set to a hypnotic beat, she walks further into the void. The men follow in a reverse striptease, undressing and dropping clothes along the way. There’s no sexuality here—they’re undressing mechanically, to fuck. As she walks over the glossy black floor, they silently sink into it as if into a pool of black paint. They keep their eyes on her the entire time, seemingly oblivious to anything else. Worse things await them later, but the entrapment is so primordially terrifying that watching it happen a few times throughout the film didn’t ever diminish the effect.

Scarlett keeps her clothes on for these sequences while the men, skinny white real Scottish men, unapologetically show their scrawny pale entireties. You still get the Mulvey’s “male gaze” on Scarlett, but there’s another, harsher, “alien gaze” on these men as they sink into the floor. I think it may have been a freeing role for Scarlett to take in that regard, who started off in awkward, less fetishized roles like in Ghost World, but lately has been stumping around as the Marvel universe’s only superhero sex object. Glazer seems to think so too: “She’s objectified, often, for her sexuality [and] the way she looks… We put that to a better use — she put that to a better use, I think — by reclaiming that in this film. And I think she actually de-eroticizes her image in this film, and reclaims it by doing so.”

Much of the rest of the film dwells, detached, on human society. Half of the things the primarily Scottish cast say are incomprehensible. Scenes are shot in a beautiful, seemingly deep but cold style familiar from Glazer’s other work. While she has no problem picking up men, it seems difficult for Scarlett to understand people, nightclubs, and dozens of other bits of contemporary Scottish life. She grows a little more throughout but ultimately it seems very pessimistic and the ending is very rushed. As a comparison, I’d just finished reading Stanisław Lem’s Fiasco, covering a similar topic. There, the hypothesis is made that two cultures, alien to each other, would be unable to share a common cultural ground. This is framed from the point of view of humans who become increasingly monstrous through a series of well-intended catastrophes.

I don’t think I enjoyed Under the Skin very much, but I think that’s hardly the point. It’s a film about alienation and strangeness and isolation and cold biological processes. I’ve been a big fan of Sexy Beast because I find it an entertaining movie. I showed that to Steph and she hated it, presumably she found little redeeming or identifiable in that film. Under the Skin extends that line but this time I fall on the other side. I didn’t have fun with it but I respect what it’s doing. There are scenes which I can’t get out of my head.

When Scarlett attempts to pick up a wetsuited man on a pebbled beach, their chat is cut short by loud shouts. A woman, far away, is swimming in the ocean toward what appears to be a dog. Shown through a series of telephoto shots, a man runs into the water after her. The wetsuited man follows. An intense series of waves pushes all of the swimmers toward large rocks. The woman’s head disappears below the water. The wetsuited man pulls the man onto the beach and collapses from exhaustion. The rescued man runs back into the water toward the woman. Scarlett walks up to the wetsuited man and hits his head with a rock. She drags him away, past a hysterically screaming child sitting on the pebbles. Later, after dark, Scarlett returns for the wetsuited man’s clothes. She ignores the child, still wailing, now having sat alone in the dark for hours. We see the child try to stand up and walk on the stones, but it is unable to. She leaves.

The scene is devastating. It is told without dialogue but what has happened is clear. The audio track is chilling string music, the sound of waves, and agonizing shrieks from the child. An immaculate example of the age-old advice of “show, don’t tell” for constructing a scene. If I could construct scenes like that in my own work, I would consider it a significant achievement.

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