I had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.
It was only after finishing the syllabus that I noticed the blatant similarities between the two films. Both are episodic narratives set largely in cars and use the setting of the vehicle’s interior to explore the relationship between self and other, body and society, identity and culture, through questions of performance and disguise. And both of them are more deliriously entertaining than such a dry theoretical summary might make them sound. Both have a melancholic, sometimes morbid tone: death surrounds them. But they are both alive with the unexpected, with bursts of colour and dark humour. And both are most succinctly about what it means to be human: plenty of films claim to enunciate the same theme, but almost never do they manage it like these two.
I subjected Holy Motors to the process of randomisation a couple of years ago, so it seems only fair to give Under the Skin some similar treatment. Here’s how it works: I use a random number generator to give me the timings of a set of framegrabs from the film, which I then use as the basis for a discussion of the film. Randomisation is designed to unsettle my own analytical process, forcing me to look at pieces of the film that I might not necessarily choose for myself if I was setting out to write an appreciation.
In this case, the random number generator has chosen the following minute-marks: 6, 16, 26, 44, 77, and 101. That looks like a good spread across the course of the film. Spoilers may follow. I won’t know until we get started. Our first image is … … an early shot of a road curving off into the distance. The scene is mostly obscured by darkness, with only the streetlamps and the central road-markings to give depth to the composition. Just left of the centre of the frame are the lights of a motor-cycle that has come to a stop at the side of the road. In the background is a white van that will be so important for the rest of the film. Under the Skin mixes many close-ups of faces with even more long shots and landscape shots, for reasons that may be come clearer as we go along. The plot is also obscure for most of the film, and even by the end there are significant questions unanswered, or answered ambiguously. So, the darkness, pinpointed by light is of a piece with that obscurity. It is also a mildly cosmic image. This sequence immediately follows the opening shots of the film, in which Scarlett Johansson’s alien is birthed, given form and language: at least, I think that’s what is going on: the imagery is mostly abstract, circles of light becoming an eye, like a pared down version of the opening cyborg-building montage of Ghost in the Shell (Johansson’s casting in the lead of the forthcoming remake of GitS is surely a perfect fit given her recent roles as cyborgic, enhanced humanoids in Lucy, Her, and the hyperphysical Marvel Black Widow stuff: ScarJo has become the embodiment of ontological uncertainty on film). The first time I saw that opening scene, I thought it was some sort spacecraft hurtling towards Earth, but now I suspect it may be more of an “interior” approach to aliens, as director Jonathan Glazer has played down any sense of the aliens as coming from a distant planet, with the exception of the briefest glimpse of some lights in the sky over a Glasgow tower block. By following the cosmic, abstract imagery of the opening with a similar play of light and dark set in a palpably Earthbound location, Glazer sets up the film’s ongoing game of finding the strangeness in the prosaic, the ethereal in the everyday. The motor-cyclist is our alien protagonist’s facilitator. He is presumably also an extraterrestrial. His vehicular speed and efficiency is contrasted with the slow prowling of Johansson in her van, since…. … much of the first hour of the film is taken up with the alien driving around the outskirts of Glasgow picking up any young men she finds walking the streets alone. For most of these encounters, the dialogue is unscripted, the men unsuspecting. The use of hidden cameras, as in this shot which shrouds the inside of the van in darkness, creates a sneaky, surreptitious sense of clandestine cruising, but the conversations are light and breezy. Scarlett, disguised by a dark wig, initiates a brief quiz to find out if the man is alone, or on his way to visit friends or family, presumably to avoid abducting anyone whose disappearance will be noticed. It’s flirtatious without ever being seductive or provocative. The window frames the man’s face but also makes him the vulnerable object under inspection, like the ant the alien scrutinises in her first scene. The framing also diminishes him, makes him stand below her eyeline, as if he has had to come to a cashier’s window. Much about these moments seems matter-of-fact, but this is a film that uses ordinariness as the raw material for an exercise in critical estrangement, lacing the everyday with the uncanny.In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the alien stands by and watches impassively as a terrible event unfolds. A swimmer she is preparing to ensnare rushes down the beach to try and rescue a man who has entered a rough sea to save his wife, who is in her turn trying to rescue the family dog. Their baby sits screaming on the rocks. Utterly unmoved by this chain of hapless, failed rescue attempts as a series of people selflessly risk their lives for one another, the alien waits for the best moment to clout the swimmer on the head with a rock and drag him to her van, ignoring the infant, who is of no use to her. For all the intimate, spider-web seductions that lead to the deaths of innocent young men, this is the more distressing sequence: it feels more believable, and their efforts at rescue more pathetic against the vast and fierce gulp of the sea. Another of the film’s epic shots of nature, this one dwarfs its human subjects in the middle of a raging sea that is as dispassionate and impartial in its killings as the alien herself (who also leads her victims into a pool that sucks them under and drowns them). The black neoprene of the swimmer’s wetsuit is another kind of skin, like the reverse of the one that covers up the alien’s smooth black “true” exterior. All of these parallels and glancing resemblances accrete across the film’s duration as she becomes more embedded in her earthly role. There is very little dialogue in Under the Skin, and what there is is mostly small talk. Everything significant is conveyed without words. But even the facial communication is often inscrutable. In this sequence, the Bad Man (the motor-cyclist we saw in our first shot, circles Laura (as she is named in the credits, but never in the film), eyeing her closely. The body language suggests the movements of a commanding officer upbraiding a soldier for a minor transgression, but no words are spoken. Maybe he has detected cracks in her facade, maybe her mask is slipping and he is checking that she is beginning to feel sympathy for her human prey. At various points in the film, we are shown close-ups of Johansson’s face so that we may inspect her for emotional responses, and also so that we can appreciate the sight of a major Hollywood star dropped into the midst of a small film in quotidian locations.
The film does not depict its alien using CGI, prosthetics or other spectacular tricks. Instead, it uses the actress’s star aura as an analogue for the strange sensations she inspires in others: her alienness stems from the relocation of a face and body familiar from so many glossy and synthetic fictions to the concrete-and-tarmac mundanity of the real world. It’s slightly problematic that this is heightened by using working-class Scots, candidly shot, to gain the maximum difference from Scarlett’s auratic charge. Maybe this isn’t about the slipping of a mask, though. Maybe the Bad Man is noticing that Laura is wearing her mask too effectively. She began the film with no make-up, before stopping off at the mall to get some lipstick and eyeliner to better approximate the lure of a human female. The second half of the film sees her gradually shedding the disguise and attempting to live as a human. The film thus follows a kind of palindromic structure, beginning with Laura’s birth and her predations on lone males, and ending with her death, becoming the prey to an opportunistic rapist who also quizzes her to make sure she is alone and “just out for a ramble”.After her encounter with the Disfigured Man (Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis), Laura goes on the run. She releases her prey from captivity, leaving him to be chased down and recaptured by the Bad Man. She appears to be moved by something (remember that very few things about her state of mind are made abundantly clear). After enticing the Disfigured Man into her lair, she catches her reflection in a mirror, evidently troubled by something different. Was it the way he touched her neck (we haven’t seen any of the other men touch her)? Was it the simplicity of his desires (he didn’t want to possess her, just to get to Tesco, or salvage the bare minimum of human contact)? Did she recognise that he, like her, is looked upon as an alien, and did this trigger her wish to fit in, to be like the people whose comings and goings she has been observing for some time now? Whichever is the best explanation, it begins a process of introspection, of looking at herself the way she has so far been looking at others. This includes periods of gazing at herself in the mirror, surveying her naked body like it’s a new outfit. We don’t know what she’s thinking here. In Michel Faber’s novel, which provides only a rough roadmap for this film, Isserley the alien has been made to undergo radical surgery to make her look human. She feels herself grotesque, and her contempt for humanity grows as a result of her own self-loathing. In the film, Laura seems fascinated by her body and the effects it has on people. She wants to be touched, wants to know what it is to reciprocate the desire that she had previously used disinterestedly as a lure. Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is also the naked body of a Hollywood star that is being offered up for the viewer’s fascinated gaze. But there is no tease now, just the curious display of unfamiliar flesh: in some ways the shot is traditionally erotic, with the low amber lighting creating shadows that accentuate Johansson’s curves. But the sequence will also make her body slightly strange, by stretching muscles, twisting ribs and shoulder blades as if trying to find what is (hey!) under the skin.
It is also important that the shot takes place in front of a mirror, framed over Johansson’s shoulder so that we too are looking with her at the reflected image. Mirrors are one of Earth’s simplest technologies, allowing us to monitor our outward appearance and therefore construct a visual conception selfhood (they have also often been theoretically and metaphorically aligned with cinema). Laura is just discovering her new reflection, so it makes sense for the scene to be suffused with an innocent narcissism. This idea will recur as the alien dies, stripped of her skin and gazing enigmatically into the eyes of her own prosthetic face. Seemingly unable to move from this circuit of self-contemplation, she is easy prey for her attacker, who is able to fetch a can of petrol, douse her with it, and set her alight. We can only imagine what the alien is thinking in that moment of self-regard, though it is shocking enough to see Johansson’s face removed from her body, still living, and emoting more desperately than ever before as she looks back upon the true alien nature she had begun to shed.The Scottish Tourist Board must have been truly conflicted about this film, which mixes many unvarnished (not necessarily grim, just ordinary) scenes of Glasgow with stunning landscape photography, as in this shot very near the end of The Bad Man searching the Highlands for the rogue alien. The man scans the horizon, defeated by the task. We don’t really know the nature of their mission, even though readers of the book have just about enough evidence to know that the human victims are being skinned and rendered into delicious meat products for shipping back to the aliens’ home planet. Elsewhere, Laura’s body burns, the smoke rising as the snow falls, completing the film’s motif of blackness (the lair, the darkness from which her eye first emerges) and whiteness (the fog, the white space in which she is first clothed). Ash and snow commingle, and this is perhaps the achievement of some sort of union with the Earth (if not its inhabitants) that has been foreshadowed in an earlier shot where Laura’s sleeping form is superimposed over a forest of pines as if she is a ghostly giant bedding down between their trunks. While she blends with the earth and sky, the Bad Man, whose job has apparently been to police the alien predators and make sure they do not go native, looks around futilely while the snow and fog obligingly cover up the traces of his quarry.