Finally watched Under the Skin (2013). It’s not my usual cup of tea I guess… not enough going on to keep me interested and definitely much slower paced than my usual fare. But that being said it was definitely made with a very consistent vision that came across very clearly in the atmosphere of the whole film.
The Air of Casual Tragedy
I thought a sense of casual tragedy really permeated the whole film. The long shots, wide shots, and long takes all serve to recreate a bustling city with everyone going every which way while Scarlett Johansson’s character makes her way down a busy street. The way she’s often almost lost in a shot populated with other people or made to appear insignificant amidst a sprawling landscape has a two-fold purpose.
Firstly, it emphasises her invisibility as a bona fide extra-terrestrial walking amongst Man. Secondly, it suggests how infinitesimal the likelihood of her victims ever being found – because they’re just one of the many, many human beings overpopulating the planet.
This air of casual tragedy is really brought across in two sequences in the film:
Firstly, in the beach sequence where she struggles to drag her victim’s body across the beach with nary an eye-witness safe for an 18-month old child left crying on the beach. From start to finish of this scene, the child is abandoned not once, but twice in two separate sequences by different characters, to suffer the elements unprotected. The family dog, mother, and father drowning in the crashing waves in the ocean is filmed in an impersonal wide shot, that presumably represents Johansson’s character’s point of view. Altogether, one gets a sense of distance and a muted awareness of the subjects of the shot who are slowly drowning and being kidnapped.
The second sequence is Johansson’s character’s death at the end of the film. The death of such a remarkable character on such a gruesome mission (to seduce men and steal their skins), is filmed in a wholly unremarkable manner. Once again, her collapse is filmed in a wide shot – depersonalised and from a distance. The lingering take of the black smoke rising up into the air and dissipating in the breeze to be replaced with falling snow becomes a slow and certain erasure of the character’s existence.
After establishing a pattern that clearly delineates Johansson’s character’s mission here on earth, the film takes an interesting (?) turn when she comes across a mirror after trapping one of her victims in the black goo that makes it possible to slough off one’s entire skin, whole and unblemished.
An obvious reference to Lacan’s mirror stage, the female alien is confronted by her reflection and a sudden knowledge of what she has been doing. It leads to a questioning of her identity. Is she alien? Can she be alien if she looks human? Is she human then? What does it mean to be human?
She begins to experiment and discover herself. From looking at her naked body in the mirror to explore her toes, her neck, to falling into a quasi-romantic relationship with a man who shows her a bit of kindness, she begins to discover herself and identify with her gendered body.
And that’s where things go downhill because to be woman is to be victim.
Of Womenhood and Victimhood
In a sharply funny sequence, Johansson’s character discovers the human anatomy of her nether regions. This involves the immediate cessation of an intimate interlude for her to grab a lamp off the table and shine it between her legs.
Her sudden acquaintance with her private parts seems to signal a completion of her journey of self-discovery. However, her identification with the parts between her legs only leads to a role-reversal where she is suddenly and brutally chased down in an attempted rape sequence.
The immediacy with which the attempted rape follows her understanding of her anatomy makes me think that the two are connected. The sudden shift in her role from predator to prey seems predicated upon her discovery and identification with womenhood. If read as such, then the film is saying, in no uncertain terms, that the moment she let her biology define her is the moment she lost all the other-worldliness that gave her strength and power and control over her situation because to identify as woman is to identify as victim.