It's been almost two weeks since I saw Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Michel Faber's novel, and it's been hard to really gather my thoughts on it. This is not a unique condition. Looking at viewer reviews of the film on Letterboxd, the second most popular thing to say about the film is that it's hard to process. The first most popular thing to say about it is that it is completely fucking nightmarish.
Why, though? Under the Skin features one moment of body horror - which is shot more for eerie beauty than revulsion - and one moment of onscreen violence. Other than that, all deaths are offscreen. Why is this film proving so disturbing to people (like me) who find most horror films easy to shrug off?
The reason is hinted at in the first shot. It begins with a black screen, over which a plummy, emotionless English voice repeats simple words, as if learning them. After a moment the black screen is revealed to be merely a close-up of a black disc. As the camera tracks out from it, we see another white disc grow in size behind it. As these two discs change their size, we realise what we are seeing; the construction of a human eye.
The film begins, in short, by looking at you. There is a feeling of a terrible, malign intelligence behind this movie - a feeling which will only grow as it continues.
There are spoilers from here on. If you're cool with reading that, read on. If you're not, have a song.
That voice, by the way, is real audio footage of the film's star, Scarlett Johansson, practicing her (flawless) English accent for the part. I like pieces of behind-the-scenes trivia like this, and in the case of Under the Skin I think they help you understand the movie. The first two acts of the movie are structured around Johansson's alien-in-human-form driving around Glasgow in a white Ford Transit - a van that is ubiquitous to the point of anonymity on British roads - asking men for directions, picking them up and offering them sex. Some of these men are actors. Some of them are not. According to Glazer the cameras recording the film were completely hidden, and Johansson really did pull over and ask complete strangers for directions.
This approach reminded me of Yoko Ono's 1968 film Rape, in which a male cameraman follows an attractive woman home, despite her frequent attempts to shake him off. There were rumours for years that the woman was a complete stranger selected at random; these appear not to be true, but may have served as inspiration for Glazer's filming strategy in Under the Skin. Like Glazer's film, Rape is a deeply disturbing experience. Even Ono admits she can't rewatch it, largely because - from its title down - it connects the male gaze in cinema with stalking and sexual assault.
Now is a good time to point out something that has already been much discussed about Under the Skin. It features Scarlett Johansson, one of the most beautiful women in modern film, naked. Three times, in fact. It has been noted that she has never been naked on screen before, and this has probably already drawn an audience who would not otherwise have considered watching a chilly, elliptical art film from the director of Birth.
It's how Glazer films these three nude scenes that persuades me he was thinking very carefully about the male gaze in his film. For there are three scenes in Under the Skin that deliberately take the POV of a character who is looking at Scarlett Johansson. They are not the three nude scenes, the first two of which are shot flatly and without camera movement from a respectful distance. There is one nude scene which does employ the male gaze, which I'll write about later. For now, let's consider the two male gaze scenes that do not involve nudity.
These come when Johansson's nameless alien has succeeded in taking two men back to her slum-like house in the middle of nowhere. Everything in this situation is ominous. The music is screeching and swooping like an infestation of terrifying insects, the alien's interaction with her prey has been mechanical and awkward, and there is a wholly intentional incongruity in seeing someone we know to be a glamorous American film star supposedly living in this tumbledown piece-of-shit house. (The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson's celebrity and screen persona) Moreover, when the unfortunate men cross the threshold, there is no house behind the door, just an endless expanse of unfathomable blackness. No walls, no floor, no roof, just black.
Why don't they notice? They don't notice because they're seeing what we now see; a slow pan up and down the body of the alien as she begins to undress. And then Glazer turns it around. We see the men who followed her from her viewpoint. They are naked, staring, alone in this terrifying and utterly convincing black void. Their penises are erect, which feels like a deliberate way of reminding us that we've moved out of the Hollywood sexual fantasy of watching Scarlett Johanssen strip off and are now looking at sexual reality. And they are sinking into a quagmire of black liquid where the inflated skins of previous victims float, their innards having been drained onto a kind of conveyor belt we briefly see below the house.
They are us. We identified with them, we looked through their eyes, and in a shot Glazer has turned this around, reminding us that the film began with a disturbing image of a non-human intelligence watching us. The alien's observations are at the heart of so many of the film's upsetting moments; in one scene she emotionlessly watches two young parents drown in front of their baby without moving an inch to help them. As with the Ono piece, there is a constantly restated link here between violence and looking.
The other objection commonly raised to the male gaze in cinema is that it's dehumanising, and this is at the core of the third male gaze segment. After a friendly stranger has taken her home, the alien stands in front of a mirror in a room lit only by an electric fire, admiring her naked body. This scene is deliberately shot in a manner very different to the rest of the film, which mostly features long, unbroken takes. We get isolated close-ups of breasts and crotch in a way that felt very jarring to me. Whose viewpoint is this?
Then it hit me - it's the alien's. Not the alien's body, that of Famous International Screen Siren Scarlett Johansson, but the alien inside. She's admiring the human body she's in, which we've already seen isn't hers. (It's not clear what the process is, but it seems to involve the body being patterned on a deceased woman her accomplice brings out from a ditch at the start of the film)
One Letterboxd review I read while I was writing this had the following to say about the mirror scene:
"...I HAD to lower my eyes from it. That previously mentioned unease in me boiled and overflowed. In simply a lengthened scene where the seemingly unstable Scarlet Johansson stares into a mirror for what seems an eternity, I looked at my hands, my knees, my hands again. I could not face the movie.
This has never happened in my 25 years plus of movie watching and i still feel pretty weird about it."
This is not the reaction many of us expect to have to a Scarlett Johansson nude scene. I think this is because Glazer has took the equation of the male gaze with violence even further than Yoko Ono did in this scene - when we see this woman naked, we are basically looking through the eyes of a killer admiring the corpse of its victim. There is a tenderness to it that exists alongside the callousness. It really is a completely convincing portrait of a creature with zero empathy, and - more terrifying still - it gets you to collude with it.
If you've read this far down the post (well done, by the way! Ta) you will have noticed I haven't mentioned Faber's source novel much. This is for the excellent reason that, er, I haven't read it, though I do know from online discussion some of what's in it. Glazer gets rid of a lot here - there is only one scene of the alien in its natural form, for instance, and it doesn't speak or resemble the creatures Faber described. Most of the changes made are ones I'm on board with, though what I've heard of Faber's ending does make me suspect it's better than Glazer's.
I'm still not sure what to think about Glazer's ending, which has the alien killed at the hands of a rapist who freaks out when he accidentally reveals the creature's true form. Parts of it are successful - I was surprised how much pity I felt for this previously frightening alien, alone, scared and under attack on a planet it doesn't live on. It does, at least, bring the rape metaphors floating through the movie's ether into actual text, and has a nice, cynical message that humans can be scarier than any man-eating alien monster. But the attempted rape is shot in a flurry of hand-held cuts that break with the visual scheme of the rest of the movie - and since the shots and camerawork in the rest of the film are so indivisible from the film's ideas and arguments, that's a shame. It's also a little disappointing to have the action of the ending governed by a character who doesn't turn up until the story is almost over.
But this is a minor problem, and I'm definitely going to go again to see if I can make more sense of it a second time round. Mostly I'm fascinated that a film can exist which provokes such horror and unease without much gore or violence, and which does it by asking its audience one of the oldest and most fertile questions in film criticism - when we're looking at a film, whose vision are we seeing?