… and how she was punished for it.
It’s been out a while, but I only just got around to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the enigmatic, glacial barely-horror film in which an alien (Scarlett Johansson) drives around in a white Transit van and preys upon lone men in Scotland. I’ve not read the novel by Michel Faber, upon which the film was based, so this discussion is purely about the latter. There’ll be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film and you’re one of those big babies there’s plenty of other things to read on this blog.
You know some bad news is coming, because I’ll start with the good. The film captures the bleak beauty and grey light of Scotland perfectly. It looks like the most grimly lush Radiohead video ever, if Radiohead singles were ever nearly two hours long. The score by Mica Levi puts many a mainstream horror soundtrack to shame with its angular, insectoid weirdness. Over the past year or so I’d say that only Cristabal Tapia De Veer’s peculiar score for Channel 4’s Utopia was better, more inventive or more crucial to the production’s atmosphere. Johansson seems to pick her acting roles at random out of a hat, and in the wrong film she can be stiff as a board and half as interesting. Given the chance, though, she can do great work. Making one of Sofia Coppola’s dreary chorus line of autobiographical Poor Little Rich Girl non-characters sympathetic (Lost in Translation) is quite an achievement, even when Bill Murray brings his full chemistry set. In Her, Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix trowel on the protagonist’s lonely, nerdy life as a sadsack spod so thickly that we don’t doubt he’d take up all manner of hikikomori activities. It’s Johansson, however, whose voice performance really sells the concept of an incorporeal artificial intelligence product that loves and is lovable while at the same time never really anybody’s at all.
Conversely in Under the Skin, Johansson barely speaks through the whole film, but watch the extraordinary and chilling way her amoral, calculating character performs feminine charm and accommodation then a split second later looks like a dead cod lying on a bed of ice at the fishmonger’s. The only character comparison that immediately comes to mind is Daryl Hannah as Pris and Joanna Cassidy as Zhora in Blade Runner, inhuman humans who know exactly which male buttons to press but would snuff any man, woman or child without blinking. Hannah and Cassidy never got as much to do in Blade Runner as Johansson does here.
In other ways that really count, Under the Skin is deeply conservative and politically quite icky, to use a technical term. It’s been getting some glowing reviews, but it left me feeling skanky. I don’t mind a film making me feel bad or dirty or complicit if me feeling those things is part of the point, but I never got that impression. It just seemed like somebody’s sick re-run of a private fantasy where they’re dominated by a beautiful woman who never gives up what she seems to promise, then they get to see her degraded for it because they’re projecting their self-loathing onto her. Again. I mean, how many times do we have to see this sad little Oedipal, heterosexual male fantasy dragged out for another lap? (Pun intended) For all its self conscious art film aesthetics and cinema verité affectations, Under the Skin is really just a standard stalk n’ slash movie dressed up in tranquilised, obtuse, Tarkovskyan drag. I’m presuming the nondiegetic parallel with its own imposter protagonist is unintentional.
For at least a century aliens, robots and monsters have been finding their salvation or their destruction (or both simultaneously, in particularly Christian-inflected narratives) by means of contamination from human values or emotions. This is exactly what happens in Under the Skin, after the oily black entity wearing a kind of animated woman-suit finds herself experiencing if not exactly qualms then at least something as a result of snaring a disabled, disfigured man whom she ultimately chooses to release again. What is easily recognisable as the “error: human emotion does not compute” cliché happens in Under the Skin as it does in R.U.R., the play that introduced the word “robot” and many robot tropes to Twentieth century culture. It happens in Terminator 2. It seemed to happen about every fourth episode of Star Trek. I’m probably not the first person to point out that Under the Skin is basically a very posh Waitrose upgrade on artisanal bread of the atrociously vulgar hackwork of Species, in which a hot alien chick systematically screws men to death because she’s desperate to get impregnated or something. I’m pretty sure that was the studio pitch, actually. Hot alien chick bangs men to death. She’s naked a lot, obviously. Of course she has to be destroyed for it, with maximum gore. The end.
The main character’s apparent life cycle may most closely resemble a humanoid pitcher plant, but Johansson’s monosyllabic seductress also fits all too neatly into time honoured misogynist templates of the femme fatale, the black widow, the honey trap, the vampire, the lorelei, the siren. Most regressively of all, her cynical deployment and “misuse” of feminine allure to trap and devour men can only lead to the traditional patriarchal punishments: ruin, debasement, destruction. Under the Skin‘s predatory alien is annihilated and narratively punished with violence just like all the other “bad” girls and women in everything from Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box (flapper has her fun, then gets murdered for it by Jack the Ripper), through Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, to the endless parade of bare-breasted blondes who were sliced and diced in 70s/80s video nasties, and the notorious bunny boiler played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
For Johansson’s character, the slow creep of human emotions and doubts– which one would think signified a positive development that the narrative could progressively reward or pay off in some way instead of punishing it– leads in short order to the tables being turned, her alone and powerless in a Scottish forest, her being nearly raped and then promptly burned to death. The rape is only averted because her would-be rapist is horrified to discover that she’s much less fuckable than he assumed, what with her being a vampiric alien in a Scarlett Johansson outfit and everything. It’s the same dodgy sexual politics of the monstrous feminine that feminist critical writers nailed thirty odd years ago, and it’s no more pleasant now than it was then. Like all the other bad girls, Johansson’s character has to be “punished” for her transgressions by being overpowered by a man, degraded with rape and/or the threat of sexual violence, and then (in this case literally) unmasked as a monster. This is retrograde, no matter how slick and arty the packaging is.
The film doesn’t even go near the most interesting aspect of the concept, i.e. us being clearly shown that the alien wears a feminine aspect as a suit or skin but is really something else, hence the title. Does it target the sexuality of straight men because of the outward appearance it has adopted and the heteronormativity of its environment? Vice versa, perhaps? Or is there something else going on? Is it a “she” in any sense that we would understand, or only playing that role? Aren’t we all playing gender roles to some extent anyway, so what do we really mean when we say that she plays at being a heterosexual woman? What if the alien inside the attractive woman is a he, or both male and female, or neither? The Johansson character is shown to have an even more enigmatic and silent companion or fixer– a motorcyclist of male appearance– who sometimes cleans up after her abductions and murders. This should help us to work out what we think about the protagonist’s identity, but nothing could be further from the truth because we learn absolutely nothing more about him except that on some occasions he somehow knows where she is and what needs doing. As a whole the film refuses to answer even the very few questions it knowingly raises, and certainly ignores all other potentially cogent questions in favour of slick pop video visuals and brooding miserablism, which is immensely frustrating.
But hey, why explore gender politics like an adult when you’ve got a naked Scarlett Johansson in your film, especially when you get to see her raped for turning men on, too?