I just saw Under the Skin, the 2013 science fiction film based on Michel Faber’s novel, which I understand is rather different from the film. I’ve made it a point to find out as little about the novel as possible, because I’m interested in seeing the film as it stands alone. And Under the Skin is one of those films that makes you think. I’ve discussed it with many people, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is like a Rorschach test. Everyone has theories about what it all means — none of which agree.
Now that’s all great! It speaks well of a work of art that makes everyone think different things about it. At the same time, it makes me ultimately less interested in determining what it means. In that way, it’s kind of like one of my favorite films, Barton Fink. I don’t focus on what it means; I focus on the plot and the characters, which are more than enough.
Of course, in terms of feeling, Under the Skin reminded me of nothing so much as the German masterpiece, Die Wand (see my discussion of it: Die Wand or The Wall). There are a few technical reasons for that (beautiful cinematography and deliberate editing), but it’s more that both films are saturated with loneliness. It’s also the case that in neither film was I that interested in what was going to happen, but rather was just content to follow these women on their journeys.
In a sense, the plot of Under the Skin could not be more tired: space alien visits Earth with evil or ambivalent intentions only to learn to appreciate humanity. But it isn’t that simple. The Female (Scarlett Johansson) shows so much reticence and fear in much of the film that it goes beyond cliche.
Under the Skin Plot
The first half of the film is made up almost entirely of the Female (the character’s name) driving around and picking up guys who she is careful to determine will not be missed. She then takes them to a house under the pretext of seduction. They are led into a room where she slowly undresses as she walks backward. They walk toward her but slowly sink into the floor where they are eventually caught in a kind of gel. This is all done without emotion, as though the Female were collecting butterflies.
But almost exactly halfway through the film, she picks up a man with a badly deformed face (played with startling fragility by Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis in real life). The Female seduces him as with the others. There are a few differences, however. First, he is the only of the men that she talks to during the process. “Dreaming?” he asks. “Yes we are,” she responds. Second, they are much closer physically. And third, it is the only such scene where she is completely naked. It is also the first time we are given an image of who is “under the skin.”
The seduction done, the man captured, the Female is about to leave the house, but catches her image in a mirror. She stares into it for a long time. And then the scene cuts to the door of the house from the outside. She opens it and Pearson is allowed to leave — naked but free (at least from her). It is a 12 minute long sequence, and the turning point of the film. The woman now goes off the reservation. It would seem that she’s been doing a job, but now she wants to escape.
A New Life
She tries to become part of the society she’s been studying or preying upon. She tries to eat and that doesn’t go well. Ultimately, she tries to have sex, and that doesn’t go well either. But between those two events, she visits a castle with a man who has been taking care of her. And as they leave the castle, they have to descend a steep spiral staircase. She is terrified, and he is helping her along. But their physical positions are a complete reversal of the previous scenes where she trapped the men. He is in front of her, facing her, encouraging her to follow him. It’s hard to mistake that she fears it is a trap.
Meanwhile, her earlier companion — a man on a motorcycle — has brought in three others and they are racing around the countryside looking for her. They don’t really matter. Under the Skin isn’t a boilerplate narrative. There is no confrontation. They are just there to stress that the Female has done something unusual and they are concerned about it.
Looking for Answers
Ultimately, we do find out what is “under the skin.” But that is hardly the point. Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else. She’s apparently not happy with her own kind yet can’t relate to humanity either. In this way, the Female in Under the Skin is even more lonely than The Woman in Die Wand. And the “sad” ending doesn’t seem sad. It comes as something of a relief. Because the whole film, we’ve watched the Female suffer.
Along with the suffering of the Female is a profound sense of confusion. While she’s doing what seems like a very boring job, she has a purpose — what I call Sudoku Meaning. But without that simulacrum of meaning, she is lost. This is something I understand very well. I go through periods where I feel it profoundly. But I am lucky in that I am the skin, so I am capable of connecting with people, even if it is just on a physical level. I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t have that, at least, to fall back on.
Given the life of the Female, death is a gift. Ultimately, it is to all of us. I feel that I will die much the same way: wondering what it all means one moment and then smoldering into the cosmos the next.
Image cropped from Under the Skin Blu-ray/Digital-HD cover art. Copyright Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Taken under Fair Use.