UNDER THE SKIN (2013, dir. Jonathan Glazer)

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(Source: Soundtrackmania.com)

The unnerving first half of Under the Skin: a feminine, otherworldly entity (Scarlett Johnasson) drives around Glasgow in a white van, lures men into the vehicle and brings them back to a void-like home, where the blokes meet their doom in a symbolic and un/certain manner.

And here’s an interesting thing about the production of UtS [1]: Glazer and his team outfitted the van with hi-res hidden cameras and Johansson really got men into the car. Hence, the notion that something as good-looking as a vamped-out Johansson could actually stalk and kill men becomes more realistic with the knowledge of an extra-textual fact.

This caused me to wonder: if luring men to their demise by means of feminine wiles is plausible, why aren’t there more female serial killers? As is, most of them are men. Thus, what is it about men which makes them more likely to be murderers? Is it something to do with biology, or is it something to do with gender constructs? And is UtS reflecting this? Speaking of, what sex is Johnanson’s entity? Is it a male, a female, a transsexual or an asexual? And can the entity entrap homosexual/bisexual women too? If not, why so? And how much does that matter? This film causes an avalanche of questions.

Yet these are the things that I can state with certainty: UtS both stimulates and confounds the incisive mind. It is a metaphoric, sensuous and ambiguous work of science fiction that implies things wondrous yet horrifying about Homo sapiens. It is a film about literal and figurative in/humanity. And while I admire it greatly, it troubled me, which I think is very much its intention.

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Johansson as the entity. (Source: A24 Films.)

Take, for example, Johansson. This film has her first nude appearance in a film. Yet, Glazer takes the prurient interest that such a first would cause and puts that on its head. Yes, the camera often photographs Johansson’s beauty with the Male Gaze but– as it is often shown in a recurring, symbolic sequence– this gaze causes the end of many lustful but oblivious men. Thus, a de facto and sexist mode of representation in narrative cinema becomes an agent of destruction in Glazer’s hands—the Male Gaze mutates into the Death Drive. Also, there’s something admirable about Johansson deciding to bare it all in a movie in the service of artful subversion. [2] “Be careful what you wish for” indeed.

But there’s not just the issue of sexuality; there’s also the theme of the exquisite strangeness of corporeality. Paradoxically, our bodies define us yet demarcate ourselves from others and do not fully indicate our inner-selves. Evidently, this becomes clear to Johansson’s entity in the second, more transcendent half of the film: [MINOR SPOILERS] after it has an existential breakdown as caused by a random moral dilemma, the entity abandons the routine of collecting men and escapes to the boonies of Scotland as if to have a rite of passage. It’s in this part of the film that the nature of being in the world is explored in a manner both rooted and ethereal. Yet the exploration leads to a tragic ending that is also a weird and cruel form of retribution. Things are turned inside out in a total and haunting fashion. [END SPOILERS]

The film’s style mirrors its paradoxical themes as it’s a narrative told with much experimentation and a reflection of reality that features bits of conspicuous and inconspicuous world-building. UtS is, like Johansson’s entity, betwixt and between, and Glazer’s oxymoronic approach is Zen epitomized. Control is exerted just as it is relinquished and the contrived merges with natural spontaneity. (An example of this is an early sequence set on a beach that involves  tumultuous waves and catalyzes the film’s bleakness to a horrifying degree.) From a conceptual standpoint, the directorial work in this film is something else.

As such, I’m stuck between wanting to write more on UtS while fearing that I could write too much. (Not to mention how hifalutin I’m being.) I’ll just finish by stating that this is one of those rare films that is worthy of being the subject of a monograph.

 

[1] http://thedissolve.com/features/interview/496-director-jonathan-glazer-on-under-the-skins-comple/

[2] Sure, one can always separate the image of a nude Johansson from its context in the film. Yet, I’d like to see anyone try that after watching UtS. It has the ability to make anyone’s sexual excitement go “eep.”

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