March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

When we first see Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin she is standing naked in silhouette, surrounded by a dazzling ambient light, about to strip the lifeless body of another woman. Having removed the jeans, top, tights, shoes and underwear, she puts them on. Only the shoes, clumpily high-heeled, produce a fleeting awkwardness; studying the adjustment of balance they require, she might well be a child dressing up.

We see her next behind the wheel of a white transit van, in the open, then in the city, which is Glasgow. She looks at the streets, her gaze picking out men, and it seems indeed as if only men walk these streets. She wanders through a shopping mall and observes women being made up at cosmetic counters, a business which appears to strike her as unfamiliar. In imitation, she picks up a red lipstick and applies it, looking intently at her mouth in a small mirror. Scarlett Johansson’s character, Laura, is an alien from outer space and as such is inexperienced in the trappings of femininity.

The camera dwells on Laura’s face as she drives, all the while scanning the road, the men on the pavements. Alternately, we are looking through her eyes, alert, seeing the strangeness of the Glasgow streets, their opacity, their straight lines (Glasgow centre’s grid, rising to steep dipping hills, makes it resemble San Francisco rather than any British city). We are drawn into the play of looks between her and the various male passengers to whom she offers a lift. Throughout this film there’s great emphasis on looking.

At times the blue-grey light in Under the Skin reminded me of another Glasgow-set science-fiction film, Tavernier’s Deathwatch, in which the handsomely shot city and the late Romy Schneider are the only things memorable. Though Glasgow has been the occasional location for films by the likes of Bill Forsyth and the excellent Peter Mullen, it rarely features as it does here: a mood, an atmosphere, a place where anything can happen.

Being a Glaswegian (albeit one who has lived elsewhere for decades), I tried to situate myself, looking for landmarks and perspectives that would show me the course of Laura’s transit van. But the film won’t let you do that: Laura doesn’t know where she’s going. She’s guided only by her search for lone young men, who, it turns out, are lured by her to their doom.

She takes them to a derelict house to which she has the key. Once inside, beyond the plainly stated world of Tesco and Asda and Rangers fans heading home from Ibrox Park, we enter a nightmarish zone where her victims follow her, hypnotised, as she does a striptease, stepping across a dark viscous surface under which they themselves gradually sink and where their naked bodies have all the substance sucked out of the skin. This may sound like a shift into horror, but we detect no fear, hear no screams, just otherworldly music that conveys the jarring creepiness of another dimension, as does the slick, high-contrast glossiness of the whole event. These scenes are nonetheless disturbing. At another point we see what might be some kind of meat processing, but this is patterned with an even greater abstraction. Glazer used to direct commercials and here he is making eerily stylish use of that expertise.

What is probably the film’s most disturbing scene of all takes place in the Highlands. On a beach a baby cries, left alone as a man plunges into the wild sea to rescue a woman struggling in the water. A young stranger in a wetsuit, already approached by Laura, rushes to his aid, yet when pulled to safety the older man swims off again, impervious to the danger. A whole scenario of tragedy unfolds and Laura mechanically exploits it. A motorcyclist tidies up after her. We have seen him before: Laura is not a solitary extraterrestrial. Early in the film he seems to assist in her predatory role. Later, in the strange zone, we saw him walking around her naked, unmoving form, assessing her from front and back and both sides, as if she were a fleshy sculpture. She merely stands there, passive.

Strange is a word that describes this film in so many different ways. Its strangeness is its strength. Human behaviour here, in its basest and noblest forms, from rape to self-sacrificing courage, assumes heightened meaning through uncomprehending alien eyes. The making strange has the effect of making more real, less unquestioningly naturalised. The wintry Highland landscapes already have a wilderness quality that lends itself to a dislocated view. Leaping waves on a windy shore, their spray curled into stylised Hokusai-like shapes, seem to pull even nature into the uncanny force field Laura exerts and is propelled by.

Halfway through the film Laura begins to be roused from her numbed state, her borrowed being as automaton. What prompts this? Hard to pinpoint, perhaps it’s a dawning curiosity that is not just an instrumental serving of her role as sexual object: she drives through daylight streets and begins to see only women. Then a deviation from the expected: a man with a severe facial disfigurement gives no response to her initial flirtation, he needs encouragement, she touches his hand and brings it to her face; things fail to go according to previous plan. The change in her is gradual, not so much the onset of empathy, in some trite identification, but her growing awareness as a self in human form. She is mesmerised by the full sight of her face in a mirror. Soon after, she departs entirely from the script hitherto and abandons her van, fleeing into the countryside where she encounters mundane kindness on a bus. By now she is frightened by her own vulnerability. She has ceased to be the predator and become the prey; watching those on her trail we can see that in the first place she was nothing more than bait.

I don’t know the novel by Michel Faber on which the film is based – by all accounts a very free adaptation. The film itself doesn’t offer easy tools for explaining its logic or that of its characters (or even its odd dashes of humour). If it did it would lose the energy of its strangeness, the emotional tension of its overall effect. Instead it is open to interpretation.

For me there is no mistaking the feminist mapping of Laura’s trajectory. This, moreover, is science-fiction, and science-fiction is rife with metaphors and analogies. The film opens with the spacecraft seen from outside. What we hear is Laura’s programming in the rudiments of human language, speech first as stuttering phonemes, then emerging as the syllables of English words. Right from that moment (or rather, retrospectively) her experience resonates with nothing so much as how it might feel to be a woman trafficked from a foreign country into prostitution: disorientated and powerless, with only a limited, utilitarian grasp of a new language, given a programmed script and set of behaviours, including her mode of dress, brutalised, perhaps drugged, and damaged to a point where the very self becomes dissociated or split as it is reduced to nothing more than a body compelled to be sexually compliant. Attempted escape from such enslavement would be fraught with risk.

This is not meant to be reductive of the film’s meanings, nor am I suggesting that the director intended this particular meta-narrative. But Under the Skin holds the clear potential for it. And it’s a film you don’t immediately leave behind when you leave the cinema. Its beauty, its beat, its atmosphere and discomforts still envelop you for some time.

The film’s final acts of violence are shocking but they lead to one last extraordinary instance of looking, when Laura stares herself directly in the face, without a mirror. An irreducible moment.

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