Under the Skin
Michel Faber, Walter Campbell, and Jonathan Glazer, 2013
#1, 2014 Skandies

As I have noted many times, I try to avoid any advance information about the movies I watch.  It helps that my memory is now terrible and I quickly forget much of the information I do hear.  So I started this movie knowing nothing more than the title and the fact that it won the 2014 Skandies.  These days movies tend to start by running a bunch of “vanity plates” crediting everyone who contributed to the financing, and this one credited the National Lottery (of Britain—​I recognized the logo), BFI (which I correctly guessed must mean the British Film Institute), and Creative Scotland.  Rightio.  Apparently I was in for a Scottish film full of people I’d never heard of.  Up came the personal credits.  “A film by Jonathan Glazer”.  That seemed to confirm my theory, as that name meant nothing to me.  So I was ready for just about anything except for the next credit to be “Scarlett Johansson”.  Whut.

Then came some abstract images and, barely perceptible beneath the unnerving music, Scarlett Johansson’s voice reciting nonsense.  Abrupt cut to an unnerving title screen.  Sequence of a motorcyclist retrieving what appears to be the body of a dead woman and bringing it back to a van.  Cut to an all‐white limbo dimension.  Whut.  There the dead body is being undressed by a naked woman.  At first her face is hard to see, so it takes me a few moments to register that the naked woman is Scarlett Johansson.  WHUT.  Scarlett Johansson was naked in a movie four years ago and somehow I never heard about this despite having the Internet installed on my computer machine?  How?  I didn’t think it was possible to be that good at avoiding information!  Soon I will be one of these people who get selected for a jury and truthfully testify that they’ve never heard of this “O.J. Simpson” fellow.

So, Scarlett Johansson (credited in IMDb as “The Female”, though thanks to the scene in the limbo dimension, I was already able to figure that out) wears the dead woman’s clothes to the mall, where she acquires some clothes and makeup, and then drives the van around Glasgow asking men on the street for directions.  I tried my best to make sense of these conversations, but eventually I had to concede defeat, jump back to the beginning of this sequence, and rewatch it with the subtitles on: Scarlett Johansson puts on a reasonably comprehensible BBC accent, but I didn’t have a clue what the Scottish guys were saying.  Here’s the first of these exchanges:

Scarlett Johansson: “I’m looking for the M8.”

Scottish guy: “Eh… uh, aye, you gaw a goo sya alang thah way, en… aw, this has gaw a bee pyeer har texplayeen. You no daz daz?”

The Female soon turns the conversation in a direction that suggests she’s less interested in finding the M8 than in finding a mate, asking the men about themselves, offering to give them a lift to their destinations, and exchanging flirtatious banter with those who accept.  Soon the men are all too happy to agree to change their plans and head back to her place.  As they step through the door, they find themselves in an all‐black limbo dimension, but they don’t seem to mind at all or even notice really, possibly because Scarlett Johansson is taking off her clothes.  As the men strip off and follow their erections toward her, however, the blackness, which is solid and reflective when The Female walks on it, and which holds clothes up perfectly fine, swallows up the men like a liquid.  They end up floating in blackness for an indeterminate period (hours? days? weeks?), gradually bloating and then popping like balloons, and red sludge slides down a chute and then there are lasers for some reason.  That’s the first hour of the movie.  In the second hour, The Female deviates from her previous behavior.  One of her victims, a grotesquely deformed man, she somehow retrieves from the blackness and releases, though upon returning to town he is waylaid by the motorcyclist and seemingly killed.  Meanwhile, The Female abandons her van and walks to a fancy restaurant, where she is served a slice of chocolate cake fit for Xi Jinping, but causes a minor scene when she violently spits it out.  Awkwardly walking down the road some time later, she meets a man waiting for a bus who tells her it’ll be along in a minute, but having seemingly lost her ability to carry on a conversation, she sits mutely on the bus with a thousand‐yard stare as the guy gently asks whether she needs help; when she finally murmurs “yes”, he takes her in.  He takes her shopping, watches TV with her, and goes for gray damp walks with her, while she stands around stiffly and doesn’t say anything.  At night, in the guest bedroom where he has set her up, she takes off all her clothes and whiles away the time staring at her reflection in the full‐length mirror, for apparently living in a world in which you can see Scarlett Johansson naked is remarkable even to Scarlett Johansson.  Eventually she and her benefactor start to have sex—​in a bed, not a limbo dimension—​but abruptly she freezes and then grabs a lamp to inspect her vulva.  Cut to the forest, where she wanders around and encounters a guy who attempts to rape her, but stops when he discovers that he’s tearing her skin off in the process.  The Female removes her remaining skin to reveal a coal‐black humanoid creature underneath.  But as her discarded Scarlett Johansson face blinks up at her, the rapist returns and sets her on fire.  She dies.  End of movie.

At this point I had no more idea of what I had just watched than I did of what those Scottish guys were saying.  So I read some reviews.  It turns out that The Female and the motorcyclist were supposed to be aliens.  In the book they’re harvesting humans for food, as human meat is a delicacy on their planet; in the movie the purpose of the harvesting is unexplained.  But yeah, the idea is that The Female adopts human form to assist her in luring these guys into the limbo dimension to be processed, but spends enough time in that form that she grows curious about the human experience, leading to her abandonment of her mission and eventual death.  After learning this, I rewatched the movie, and it was orders of magnitude more rewarding.  I noticed how when The Female tries to pivot the conversation the first thing she tries to find out is whether the man she’s talking to has friends or family who will notice if he goes missing; the loners are the ones she offers rides to.  I had already noticed that when she gives up on a potential victim, as soon as he is out of sight her face goes from flirtatious to completely blank; now I could interpret that as “she’s an alien” rather than “she’s a psychopath” or “she’s in an art movie”.  Because that’s the thing, innit?  The first time I watched Under the Skin, not only was I unable to piece together the story, but I didn’t even really try, because where movies like this are concerned, most often the answer to “What is the plot here?” is “There is no plot, you hopelessly middlebrow philistine! This is a tone poem of surreal imagery, so you just need to let go of your fixation on narrative and, like, free your mind or something.” The scene with the cake?  Knowing that The Female is supposed to be an alien, it makes perfect sense—​the cake conflicts with her extraterrestrial physiology!—​but spitting out the cake does not signify that she’s an alien, because people do shit like this in arthouse movies all the time.  Remember the bit in Mulholland Dr. with the coffee?  That guy wasn’t an alien.  He was just in a David Lynch picture.  Nor do all the scenes in white limbo and black limbo signify that these characters are from another planet—​another dimension, maybe, but it seems more likely that the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways.  Staring at her reflection: “Isn’t it obvious that she’s an alien in the throes of an identity crisis because she sees a human body in the mirror instead of an obsidian one? Can’t you pick up simple clues?”  The limbo dimensions: “What, do you need an explanation for everything? Can’t you just luxuriate in the uncanniness instead of looking for clues all the time?” 

A postscript:  Many reviews pointed out that this movie was in part a commentary on the relationship between gender and stranger danger, demonstrating that while women must constantly calculate their chances of coming to harm at the hands of the men they meet—​“Hmmm, what are the chances that this guy I’m on a Tinder date with will murder me if I go back to his place? I think only around fifteen percent! I like those odds!”—​the men whom The Female picks up cheerfully hop into her skeevy van without a second thought.  Offering these scenes up not as a reflection of a phenomenon but as proof of it would normally run afoul of Pattern 36: fictional examples don’t prove anything.  Except in this case they kind of do, because, I was fascinated to read, a lot of this movie was not entirely fictional!  Most of the guys The Female picks up were not actors—​the van was rigged with hidden cameras, and Scarlett Johansson actually did drive it around Glasgow and flag down guys on the street and try to lure the loners into the passenger seat.  Apparently no one recognized her, because when you’re in Scotland and a woman with a mop of black hair pulls up beside you in a van and asks you in an English accent how to get onto the motorway, even if she looks like Scarlett Johansson, you’re not going to think she’s Scarlett Johansson.  (Though I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the guys saying things like “I think you’re gorgeous” and “You look absolutely stunning” ruined everything by asking, “Has anyone ever told you that you look kind of like the Black Widow in those comic book movies?”)  Once the conversations had been filmed, these loners were informed that this was a movie, asked to sign a release so their scenes could be included, and told that if they were willing, they could film one extra scene.  “What do I do?”  “Oh, just follow us to a closed set outfitted entirely in black, strip naked, and walk with a visible erection towards one of the biggest movie stars in the world as she undresses.”  That is a hell of a thing to happen to you as you’re just minding your own business heading down to the shops to pick up some snacks.


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