Under the Skin is a British film from 2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the strange sociopath woman we encounter all along the film. Actor Jeremy McWilliams plays the guy in the motorcycle, who very often appears in small shots of the film. Under the Skin portrays both the beauty of a psychological and Science Fiction thriller that had many punches along the way. Filled with dark cinematography, obscure music and a conclusion that leaves the audience wondering and begging for some clear understanding. This essay contrasts the narrative structure of the film, compares Science Fiction with Non-Fiction genres and how the mise-en-scene alters the viewers thoughts and mind.
In order to provide to a critical analysis of the film one must start by describing the narrative type of the film, which is accomplished by the protagonists. The film has a hidden perspective when it comes to its narrative. As the audience watches the film, they may be under the impression that the narrative perspective comes from Scarlett Johansson’s views, and they are right. The actual narrative form comes from the alien being who is under the skin of the character and we are not aware of it until the very end. This narrative perspective is fully disconnected from reality and human interaction. This invites the audience to observe the alien character while she observes. For example, as she drives in her van asking people for directions this can infiltrate a sense of insecurity towards the viewer. As she watches people while they walk into what appears to be the downtown area of the city we get an idea of what she is thinking. The ideas of how to learn, interact and think like a human. It seems she is desperately trying to accomplish a mission that we are not sure yet what it is. She is appreciating human interaction and communication on earth and at the same time gaining skills for her mission.
Due to its graphic nature and sexual explicit material Under the Skin can be most likely referred to as a piece of feminist film that subverts audience expectations in order to indict the male gaze. This results in a discussion of the real dangers of scopophilia which is “an expression of sexuality and it basically refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at erotic objects like photographs, pornography and naked bodies.” An overview of the use of Science Fiction in the film shows Johansson’s character which is probably a supernatural entity assuming a human identity to collect information about humans as an alien intelligence might do. Before the viewer finds out at the end of the film of the real secret she is hiding under her skin, the film plays along with the viewers thoughts, thus showing a contrast of Non-Fiction taking place in the film. Leading us to believe that maybe she is someone with a mental disorder or even a psychopath who is hunting for human lives. Both genres are delivered very closely throughout the film. Science Fiction is also seen when the woman is in the dark room in front of her victims and they seem to follow her completely hypnotized as they drown in a world of sexual fantasies. The motorcyclist can be interpreted as a companion character which we know nothing about. The dark place or obscure world on the other hand where the woman submerges her victims may be another planet or dimension or a visual representation of how sex feels to her coming from a human entity.
In Under The Skin’s opening scene we witnessed a series of disturbing and enigmatic shapes and sounds. Some of these sounds were a voice trying to speak up, this could be interpreted by a voice that could have been taking away and is trying to find its freedom, just like the actions taking by the alien character towards her victims in the dark place. There is a sound of what seems to be a space ship lost in space trying to find its way home, which could be interpreted by the alien character trying to find her place on earth and adapting to her new life. The images dissolve into the biker riding a long stretch of road. The lights of a city are reflected on his helmet. He then grabs the body of a dead woman and places her in an unmarked van. I can compare all the interpretations stated above with style arosuing emotion, as explained in chapter ten Documentary, Experimental and Animated films in the book Film Art :An Introduction, Tenth Edition. “Style reinforces the film’s arguments through techniques that arouse the audiences emotions ”
In the next scene we see Laura or the alien to be more specific, naked, taking off the dead woman’s clothes to put them on herself. This dead woman could possibly be another alien that Laura is replacing or just a human victim. The film is always leaving the viewer with gaps in between in regards to the plot in general which makes it more thrilling for a Science Fiction masterpiece. The biker’s job is to observe and keep tabs on Laura, since the biker knew where to find this dead woman, it is more than likely he was following her all along. The dead women also has the same body shape as Laura and looks like her. This gives the interpretation of taking someone’s identity in order to achieve a goal. There is a shot in the film when the alien picks up an ant from the dead woman’s body. This clearly makes reference and makes me think of formication; the sensation of having insects crawling under your skin. Thus, showing the audience the alien inhabits a foreign skin like a human suit to capture her prey. Laura undergo’s a psychological transformation while in the suit of the other woman and because we are unaware of her emotions or motivations, we witness her visibly struggling with the human world’s new image has created for her. Although she is a predator, she is like the ant, a tiny being away from its colony, defenceless in a foreign world.
The great contrast of the film between the Science Fiction and Non-Fiction genre are shown explicitly in the attitudes and behaviours of the protagonist’s point of view and progression, development of its narrative and its visual and thematic motifs. For example, when we encounter the dark dimension where the alien takes its victims and how it is revealed to us through the steps of the humans as they follow along the mirror like effect that loos like water. Most of it, we see the contrasts with the connections and interactions the film provides as the viewer’s empathy for the protagonist grows as the protagonist’s empathy for humans grows. For example, when the alien is interacting with the elephant man in the van, thus leading to a huge connection of being in a different skin but yet being able to develop feelings for one another. Step by step the film takes us into a journey of plain insecurity, strange scenes with characters that have no names as far as I know and most of all, the idea of a script that is based on regular conversations instead of actual acting roles. For example, the different scenes when the alien is talking to its victims showing her approach from inside the van and their approach from outside the van. Thus taking the viewer into a different platform that represents Non-Fiction as we are taking by the use of visual effects that represent the Science Fiction part of it.
Furthermore as stated by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in chapter eight Style and Form in the book Film Art :An Introduction, Tenth Edition, “Techniques will be repeated and varied, developed and paralleled, across the whole film or within a single segment.” I can refer this statement to the way Science Fiction and Non-Fiction are contrasted by the use of repetitive and varied scenes in the film and how the different stylistic patterns of the protagonists views describe most of the narrative. Without a doubt anyone who watches the film can have a complete different interpretation of it. This interpretation can be a positive or negative reception. Many viewers may misinterpret and even misunderstand the film and may think the film is trying to welcome scopophilia. By watching it carefully and analyzing it through a lens synthesized from feminist film theories, its uniquely balanced and empathetic feminist morals come to light.
In the scene when the alien picks up another victim and this time she’s in the car with the disfigured man, she not only makes contact but she experiences a connection, via the flesh, with another human being, who’s identity is also found beneath the surface just like her identity. Thus probing once again the great contrast between the use of Science Fiction and Non Fiction. Another amazing contrast of Fiction versus Non-Fiction takes place when we realize the alien begins to discover herself and she begins to identify with her skin. It clearly represents she is experimenting with her new skin in the new human world she is in.
When it comes to the mise-en-scene of the film, we are able to discover a great variety of use in the film. Even though it is not a very expensive blockbuster film, it does have a very good use of the mise-en-scene. I just want to expose one fact I did notice while I watched the film and that is the fact that the film has little framing and less exposition to justify the obvious narrative. As I explained already most of the film’s narrative comes form the eyes and perspective of the characters and we see the narrative though their unscripted conversations. The film’s mise-en-scene is complemented by some editing points. There is use of the mise-en-scene very often when the alien character takes the victims to the dark place. We see them going in to this strange world and we see how the use of mise-en-scene takes place from the moment the human enters the place to the moment they are following the steps of the alien. Finalizing it with the scene when they seem to drown in this new dimension that uses a flat mirror that represents a dark water like effect.
There is a lot of white or black backdrop on highly accentuated figures and slow movement which produces an inherently psychosexual experience, thus leading the viewer into a trance state of mind. There is great use of both a denial and affirmation of sexual sensation because the impetus of Under The Skin’s motivations is absconded, which shows most of the films actions through the alien character, thus leading the audience to believe that the alien will leave “hurriedly and secretly, typically to avoid detection or arrest for an unlawful.” While mechanical camera and figure movements and a striking formal design allure the viewer into a void. A few remarks and perhaps one of the best use of mise-en-scene took place in several shots, which I will further discuss.
At the beginning of the film right after Laura has taken the shape of her new skin we see her driving around in town and we are juxtaposed with the mise-en-scene of buses, cars, people in the streets and even the people she stops in the street to ask for directions. This happens all the way from the begging until the end of the film, since it pretty much evolves on those type of actions. Laura driving her van, appreciating the city and humans, talking to people and taking advantage of her victims and than it starts from zero once again to do it all over again. mise-en-scene as already mentioned is non-stop due to the nature of the film. Just to give a clear example, we observe more clear when she is directing herself into a club or a rave following a man and women are walking into the opposite direction, dragging Laura with them. Right after that shot, we see a cut and she appears in the club, dancing surrounded by other people, than we have neater cut and she is talking to the man she was following, than we have another cut and they appear outside talking. All throughout this scene we have use of the mise-en-scene.
In conclusion even though the film may be confusing at one point and it represents a lot of sexual material it is further in when I come to realize the true nature of this Science Fiction psychological masterpiece. The nature of portraying the interaction, communication and relationship humans have with each other while making emphasis of our darkest fantasies and fears. The film juxtaposes scenes of highly orchestrated fantasy with disturbing realism to disorienting effect. Knowing and taking into consideration the heated antipathy of some viewers and critics. Yet, this is neither a misunderstood masterpiece nor a fake script. Rather it is an attempt to tell a striking and science fiction story in a down to earth environment that deserves an outstanding ovation for its creative work and vision. Thus, making this thrilling and strange cinematic voyage a must watch film with an open mind and a very driven approach.
Fenichel, Otto. The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel. W.W Norton & company: New York. Page 373. Print.
Bordwell, David. Thompson, Kristin. Film Art :An Introduction, Tenth Edition. McGraw-Hill : New York. 2013. Page 366. Print.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Har court Publishing Company. 2011. Print.
Bordwell, David. Thompson, Kristin. Film Art :An Introduction, Tenth Edition. McGraw-Hill : New York. 2013. Page 312-313. Print.
Written by Felipe Medina for the Film Aesthetics course at Concordia University in Montreal.