Our failures of understanding may express themselves as prejudicial disregard of others of a different color, race, religion, or gender. From this vantage, the film invites the viewer to reflect upon (and criticize) two competing strategies of empathy and reconciliation across races: one that is blind to color, and the other that sees only the mixing of different colors as the aim of true understanding.
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Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a brilliant teaching-text for a time of fear. It presents the human fascination with the surface of others as a cover, or skin, concealing the xenophobic human inability to face the alien essence underneath the pleasing and familiar exterior. The movie is laudable as an allegory about empathy across racial lines, but the viewer is pushed to add another layer under the skin, so to speak. Although it plays out as dystopian tragedy and its ending may not live up to its own sense of mystery, it offers a real and more profound lesson about recognizing the other that is under our own skin.
The movie is driven by a clash between two erring communities. In a plot move that is never explained, human-shaped aliens are engaged in the macabre practice of sucking the flesh out of humans, immersing them in alien blackness to take the flesh under the skin and leaving the skin as a wispy discard. The humans in the movie – played by amateurs from Glasgow, Scotland, and environs who don’t know they’re being filmed – are entirely diverted by the skin, which is taken broadly to mean the curves, the clothes that accentuate the curves, the symmetrical facial features – in other words, the human surface. The white male amateur actors trying to pick up Scarlett Johansson fail to see the person inside, until, at least, one man shows interest in what is under Scarlett Johansson’s skin.
With his invitation, which she accepts, she learns that both alien and human are wrong in their orientation. To symbolize this change, she takes off her fur coat and becomes (as it seems) human, and no longer a mere imitative hunter of humans. Still, she remains different, biologically. There is consternation all round, and integration within the human community is thwarted.
One does not need to jump too far to “skin” films (e.g., to the most superficial beach-sex films, or to pornography) to understand the seriousness of the film’s question about our veneration of surfaces. Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) begins with the Patrick Bateman character performing his toilette. We see his toned and nude body as he exercises, showers, and facially cleanses. In a brilliant shot, we see him lift a rigidified cucumber mask off of his face (above), the translucent clingy material separated from his actual face. It recalls the flayed skin of Michelangelo-as-Bartholomew in the Last Judgment and Halloween’s affectless Michael Myers at once. The voice-over by Christian Bale, whom we watch as he looks at himself in a mirror, warns: “I simply am not there.”
In Patrick Bateman’s case, our preparation “to meet the faces that you meet” is pure artifice. The man washing and dressing before us is all mask and clothes, all the way down, lacking an essence that would stabilize his behavior in his world of “murders and assassinations” (mergers and acquisitions).
In the case of Adam Pearson (above), an amateur actor with neurofibromatosis who plays a key role in Under the Skin, we do not attempt to get under his skin. In a beautiful passage, his hands are the focus of Scarlett Johansson’s attention. She flatters his vanity, and he allows her to feed both his vanity and desire, which would be troubling if he weren’t so different-looking. Isn’t vanity still vanity? However, her attention points to something real, a possible triangulation of feeling even between two very different beings. Sexual attraction is not to someone exactly like oneself, but often to someone very different – in thoughts, in appearance, in body type, in biology. To strip this man of his skin in order to see his golden soul would be tyrannical rather than liberating. His skin is a part of him, inseparable from what is underneath. Sucking out the good stuff and leaving the skin as a diaphanous veil, as the aliens do, now looks as silly and one-sided as judging by the skin alone, as humans (men) do.
The ending of the film is in one crucial respect imperfect. The finale is shot beautifully in a forest in Argyll, the better to show the incongruity between the busy confusion of nature and the isolated human who hates anything different. In these concluding shots, the film invites us to think about the movie as an allegory on race. But it is much more. As Scarlett Johansson’s alien goes up in smoke, a new victim of an old inquisitorial intolerance, no longer either obvious surface or unknown depths, we are invited to think about our own impermanence. The viewer is also asked to consider whether the greatest danger is not xenophobia (seeing too much through the lens of our own color and race) but moral blindness to the being that we are.
Our failures of understanding may express themselves as prejudicial disregard of others of a different color, race, religion, or gender. From this vantage, the film invites the viewer to reflect upon (and criticize) two competing strategies of empathy and reconciliation across races: one that is blind to color, and the other that sees only the mixing of different colors as the aim of true understanding. Within the genre, District 9 offers a transformed parallel. The other theme is the failure of self-understanding that the film exposes. The skin and what is under the skin both matter. Neither must be ripped off and tossed aside to see the “real” person of the skin – or beneath it. When Scarlett Johansson’s inky strangeness is exposed to the northern light in the film’s finale, this is not her “true self” so much as another matryoshka doll – another way we show ourselves in the world to be seen, and as we project ourselves to be.
To the extent that the movie confirms the strangeness of the film’s premise, it joins a list of other movies that challenge us to think about identity and being within the science fiction genre – at its best, in Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001. Surprisingly, Under the Skin stands quite well outside of genre as a stylized reflection on identity, which permits comparison across genres to films such as Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria or even to classics like Bergman’s Persona.
Robbie Collin, “Under the Skin: The Making of Scarlett Johansson’s Alienating New Film,” The Telegraph, March 10, 2014: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10675179/Under-The-Skin-the-making-of-Scarlett-Johanssons-alienating-new-film.html
Elizabeth Day, “How Scarlett Johansson Helped Me Challenge Disfigurement Stigma,” The Guardian, April 12, 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/scarlett-johansson-screen-stigma-disfigurement
“Under the Skin Film Locations,” The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, 2014: http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/u/Under-The-Skin.html#.WMG-wPnyuUk
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All images are screenshots from the film.