Great movies I (almost) missed in 2014: Under The Skin (Film review)

Film Review Under the SkinJonathan Glazer has established himself as one of the most interesting directors working today with Under the Skin bringing his peculiar talent for the unsettling under a stark spotlight, where it existed more as background noise in his previous two features, Sexy Beast and Birth. Both Sexy Beast and Birth explore complexities in female sexuality – Sexy Beast focusing on a retired gangster who refuses to return to his old life of criminal activity because he has fallen in love with a porn star and retired to build a normal life with her, and Birth about a woman who replaces her passion for a dead husband with a male child who claims to be that husband re-incarnated. In Glazer’s hands, women are mysterious creatures whose love stands at odds with their sexuality. Glazer has a talent for highlighting the troublesome difficulties of the heterosexual female, that is the transformative power of love gifted to an other who has little or no ability (or a driving fear) to transform under the influence of great love. In a Jonathan Glazer universe, women embody desire, yet carry the key to a life free from fear, while men, desperate to control that desire, resist its post-coitus power, driving a narrative that presents the “used” female as weak and powerless in order to resist her.

(Please note I use spoilers in discussing this film)

All this is taken back to its source in Under The Skin, itself a mysterious film that sets itself open to multiple interpretations many have taken full advantage of. No matter what you think Under The Skin is about (and this is a film that deviates substantially from the book) two images are unambiguous; that of Scarlett Johansson using her beauty to seduce men to their death in a black pool and herself being raped and immolated for her crimes in the final seconds of the film. This violent end to her (and for our comfort we can remind ourselves she never really was a “her” she is a creature in a Scarlett Johansson suit) life is shocking and arguably excessive considering her mid film change of heart in saving the man with a facial neurofibromatosis disfigurement, but it does evoke a kind of ‘I spit on your grave’ triumph, particularly when she is finally raped – a torture she had courted and yet successfully avoided earlier in the film. While on the surface it may appear the search for solitary men has something to do with her carnivorous plans, as the film repeatedly reveals, she chooses isolated males because she is vulnerable to attack when they are in groups. This point is made in the careful plotting and editing, as the film progresses and the audience are exposed to increasingly hostile behavior in the ‘normal’ day-to-day experience of a beautiful female.

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The real cleverness of Under The Skin is in Glazers secret filming of ‘normal’ male reactions to the beauty of Scarlett Johansson, reactions which include constant abusive remarks screamed at her as she drives around in her van, and in one instance, a group attacking the van, smashing windows, trying to get to her. The scenes of Johansson receiving the constant barrage of verbal abuse from males is real footage, the men having no idea they were being filmed. Their approach to negotiating sexual congress is aggressive, they arrive at the transaction already furious she has the right to say no to their advances, as if any woman ever has the right to say no. The camera in her van coupled with Johansson’s impassive face gives a perfect impression of the fearful position women are in, simply by driving around. It is impossible for the men to realise Johansson’s character imposes a threat, and in this instance, when we see them, they do not know they are being filmed.

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Ludicrously many critics have labeled her ‘powerful’ because the men she gathers die in her black pool delivery to her home planet, but she is constantly under threat, and in many ways staving off the inevitable destruction all heterosexual females experience when they finally disengage from the cool separation, that to an extent can keep them safe, and descend (as the imagery of the film would have it) into emotional engagement with a male other. The aliens death stems directly from her rescue of the disfigured male and the discovery of her vagina during sex, two signs of definite weakness which immediately leave her so vulnerable to the attack she has previously successfully avoided hat she retreats to an abandoned forest in order to court safety. The first male she happens upon in her emotionally vulnerable position is the one who will destroy her, despite his safety and the absence of either her black pool or her helpful motorcycle friend who appears to have abandoned her as soon as she began to emotionally engage with the men around her. In the final moments when Johansson is attacked, her beautiful facade is ripped off to reveal what lays beneath, and this is so horrifying, she has to be destroyed. Under the hypnosis of desire, men will do almost anything (including engage with their own death drive) but nothing prepares a female for the anger, revulsion and hatred she will feel from him when he wakes up to find just a normal human creature by his side trying to connect.

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It is impossible to ignore the splendid and astonishing combination of power and vulnerability of Glazers image of the ropey masculine bodies sporting full erections descending into the black pool as they walk toward Johansson’s nakedness, and it is these images above all else that evoked such a strong critical response. Definitely one of the best examples in cinematic history, they are perfect replication of desire and the death drive, properly illuminating the vulnerability of the erect male. The film goes on to clarify that just because a male engaging in desire is powerless, it doesn’t correlate that the female/object is powerful, but given our limited ability to see what is right in front of us, it is difficult to not react to Johansson this way. Glazer has used her obvious star power and her beauty, dressing her in ordinary street garb (seeing gorgeous stars in ordinary clothes is always a stunning and subversive image) while retaining her glamorous haircut and her enormously expensive makeup to maintain the tension between beauty and desire, playing into the perpetual narcissistic fantasy most men harbour that a woman’s makeup and clothing is all designed as a snare to entrap him. In the end all intimacy and close engagement leaves us vulnerable, but as we see in so many critical reactions to this film, the fantasy of the sexually powerful female is a difficult one to abandon.

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Male hysteria around feminine beauty is further enhanced with Glazers unsympathetic eye over the people of Scotland, choosing to film and focus the very ordinary looking females and males of his surrounds. It has the problematic subtext of somehow justifying the response to Johansson’s beauty, as if she and these behaviours ‘she’ provokes were an anomaly, when this isn’t the case. Beauty is defined by desire, and the most beautiful is the most desired as defined by her environmental scale. Johansson is beautiful, but so are so many women, and certainly thousands of unknown women are as beautiful as her. The male responses to her beauty are practiced, and echo their own fear, not born of instinct or some imagined predatory evolutionary throwback. They will attack the next pretty girl sitting unprotected in a van as they move on past Scarlett Johansson.

For many reasons, Under the Skin is one of the best contributions to 2014’s filmography and certainly the best Glazer film to date, which bodes well considering the high standard of his previous films. Highly recommended.

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