Polarizing sci-fie: the fantasy machine
Under the Skin (2013)
Dir/co-writer: Jonathan Glazer
Featuring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson, Jeremy McWilliams
By Peter Hulm
Under the Skin makes no naturalistic sense and to some seems offensively sexist, but it remains utterly absorbing as you watch — funny, intriguing and disturbing.
In addition to considering how these reactions are grounded in experiences of the movie, this study examines how best to apply postmodern psychoanalytical thinking to films.
The embarrassment of practice
Both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan have given fictional narratives a key place in their writings. But commentators such as Peter Brooks have described psychoanalytical criticism of literature as "something of an embarrassment" (Lis Møller:1991:xiii).
Taking this complaint to heart, the psychiatrist Donald P. Spence has called for the profession to replace Freud's favourite metaphor of analysis as archaeology. We need one that more accurately reflects what happens in practice, he says (Møller:1991:xii).
Without openly contradicting Freud, Lacan — as his French inheritor — suggests in his study of Edgar Allen Poe's Purloined Letter that Freud's favourite idea of digging up the patient's past does not reflect how psychoanalysis works: the repressed is not hidden and therefore does not have to be "excavated". It lies there on the surface for anyone to see, and only our blindness and the deviousness of our unconscious stops us from recognizing it.
The repressed and retranscription of memory
For Lacan, the repressed is "exposed — in language — through significant (rhetorical) displacement", to use the words of Shoshona Felman in an essay challenging the surface/depth paradigm of psychoanalytical treatment of literature).
In fact, Freud himself also offered an alternative description of the psychoanalytical process. Lis Møller notes that even as late as 1937 his writing "oscillates between different conceptions of the psychoanalytic process, between different epistemological models" (1991:xi).
In a term that dates back in his writings to 1896, in addition to speaking of excavating memories, he talks of analysis as a rearrangement or "retranscription" of memory traces that act on the patient "as though they were fresh experiences" (xii).
This has parallels with his notion of deferred action (Nachträglichkeit) (1918), in which he highlights the gap between a traumatic experience and the appearance of a neurotic symptom.
Reconstruction not a talking cure
More important for our purposes, re-construction involves the analyst as much as the patient. Treatment is not solely a talking self-cure by the analysand.
Transposing this to cinema viewing, we can consider the process of 'constructing' a meaning from narrative as very similar to the way an analyst (and patient) retranscribe experiences rather than falling back on the notion of the analyst (viewer) simply listening to the patient (narrative).
As postmodernists since Roland Barthes have argued, we can consider the meaning of films (texts, in the pomo jargon) as being constructed by the audience from the material offered by the film, which may or may not be used as its creator consciously intended.
What a text creates is an alignment between two unconsciousnesses and the satisfaction of finding this parallel in an external fabulation.
This raises the question: how do we recognize the truth that a psychoanalytic reading of a narrative delivers? The puzzle is that: in contrast to a psychological session, we lack any way for a film to explicitly confirm our readings of a narrative.
The answer, it seems to me, lies in the structure of the film itself, which can support or deny our interpretations, often through the device of suspense, as we watch.
Under the Skin seems particularly apt for this kind of dissection because it is so 'minimalist' in its presentation and, despite its enigmas, simple in its story line.
Putting form into psychoanalytical content
Another important theoretical issue also needs to be tackled: the place of formal questions in psychoanalytic criticism.
In The Unconscious (1999), Antony Easthope complains that Freud, and later Lacan, deal more with the content of the stories they examine than the form in which these appear: "The surface meaning of the text is discarded and the real meaning hidden underneath is revealed. Formal issues are set aside, as is the question of how different readers might respond to the text" (118).
Møller, echoing Sarah Kofman from 1970, makes the same objection (96), and notes that in writing about Michelangelo, Freud confesses he is more attracted to content than to form (Lis Møller:1991:96).
Mass art demands immediate intelligibility
For most (perhaps all) artists (high and low), form and content are indissoluble. But in popular art, Noël Carroll argues (A Philosophy of Mass Art 1998), form, content and presentation are determined for authors in part by the demands of immediate accessibility for audiences (227).
We can therefore expect the form chosen for Under the Skin — in shaping its content as well as the narrative itself — to give us pointers not just to Glazer's intentions but also to the tensions between the demands of immediate accessibility and the need to repress or retranscribe and rhetorically transplace certain aspects of its appeal to our unconscious.
Skin's long history
Jonathan Glazer is famous/notorious for having taken ten years to get Under the Skin into the cinema.
In 2004, at 39, Glazer was poised for success. Director, with co-writer Walter Campbell, of what is widely considered one of the best television commercials of all time, he already had Sexy Beast and Birth (with Nicole Kidman) under his belt.
Seven years and two drafts later he was apparently still determined to make a film on the topic, and Scarlett Johansson was on board. He ended up with 270 hours of film to edit.
'If you fall asleep, you miss nothing'
He produced perhaps the most polarizing science fiction film of our time. Just look at the imdb user reviews, and the variations between the top score of tens scattered thickly among the 1s (lowest rating). From "a profound study of our society" to "If you fall asleep you will have missed nothing".
Whichever opinion viewers support, almost all find the film expertly achieved in technical terms. This is a good reason for examining at length how it functions as a 'fantasizing machine' (encouraged by the engagement of a Hollywood star).
Critics who loved the film mention Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Lars von Trier, all for the most superficial reasons (closeups of an eye, an 'elephant man' and a beach scene).
One deliberate echo of Kubrick is in the music by Mica Levi. Brought late into the movie — at the editing stage when Glazer realized he could not use diegetic sound — she deservedly won a European Film award for her original and evocative contribution to a film of minimalist dialogue.
Set pieces, unadorned
Its pace — Glazer speaks of it being made up of set scenes — seems likely to remind viewers of Andrei Tarkovsky's later films (e.g. Nostalghia). Its style — Glazer calls it "unadorned" — seems far from the extreme formalism of Kubrick, Lynch or von Trier.
Such cinéastes leave us in no doubt that we are watching a constructed film. Glazer, by contrast, used a deliberately documentary style.
Documentary, as Laura Mulvey has pointed out, despite conventional presumptions of easy readability, is fundamentally ambiguous: "Any factual raw material arouses, or should arouse, a practical sense of uncertainty in terms of its interpretability" (2006:10-11).
As this study attempts to show, the uncertainty represents both a conscious and sub-conscious element determining the power of Under the Skin, and one whose ambiguities psychoanalytical theory can help elucidate.
The story itself, pared down to the barest elements from the novel originally produced by satirical sci-fi writer Michel Faber, who lives in Scotland, is as opaque as anything in Robert Bresson.
Much like Bresson, Glazer asks you to piece together the introverted story in your mind as you go along, and like Bresson he uses many non-actors in Skin.
However, instead of Bresson's religious concern to demonstrate God's grace in action and project a Jansenist view of earthly existence, Glazer seems more interested in the humanization of an individual in an equally bleak world.
The strangeness of everyday life begins with the Scottish accents. It was a brilliantly funny idea to have the alien (played by Johansson) encounter raw Scottish vowels in all their complexity. I'm sure most viewers were as lost as she was in their conversations.
But it didn't matter. The first real dialogue doesn't occur until 13 minutes into the film and it's minimal after that.
Johansson's impossible task
Johansson herself has an almost impossible task, to play an alien who has learned human language but, in contrast to Jeff Bridges' character in John Carpenter's Starman (surely another reference for Glazer), she never learns how to connect with humans.
In retrospect, the story is straightforward.
Johansson is an alien sent from another planet who dons human skin in order to harvest men (presumably for the far planet's inhabitants). Gradually, she learns to feel empathy with her Earthly victims, and flees from her alien controller. But when she takes refuge in nature (a woodland), she is attacked by a logger and a hole is torn in her skin, revealing her alien body beneath. In alarm, her wouldbe rapist douses her with fuel and sets her alight as she is in process of pulling off her human carapace. Aflame she runs into the open and dies in a cloud of ascending smoke.
Glazer's big idea was to film all this from the point of view of the alien.
As he explains in a Channel4 video interview: "The method and the narrative are the same thing. [...] Unadorned was key in this film, things that were witnessed and found. Beauty would come from the way we put it together, and the truth of it, if there was any" (at 9:25, approximately).
So why do I say it doesn't make sense?
The opening seems to be a combination of wormhole travel and creation of a human eye (as some viewers have understood it) while off-camera an alien (Johansson) learns to speak English. This ambiguity is not cleared up by re-viewing. As an opening mystery it works, but only if we are prepared to read details as being open to multiple readings and metaphoric, despite the film form's inescapable assertions of showing us a reality. In viewing, this scene comes across as schematic as a Dr Who graphic.
We never learn why men only are being harvested. In the book, it seems, it is for their muscles, a delicacy on the remote planet. But that hardly disqualifies women, and the blogger known as flickfilosopher (see below) is right to complain of the paucity of women characters in the film.
Scarlett Johansson's alien knowledge of English is amazingly good (so is her accent) but we are meant to believe there is no human feeling behind it, despite the warmth in her voice.
We are given no explanation of the motorcyclist's role in her life. Jeremy McWilliams is a champion rider, and that was needed for the Scottish roads in winter. He also has a rugged look.
We therefore presume the character is her 'minder' or partner. In the book they pretend to be a farming couple, leading some to read the story as a protest against the way we treat animals.
Though Faber has apparently rejected this suggestion, the film version has a notable lack of animals onscreen, except for a drowning dog, or on the soundtrack, though she goes in search of birdsong, it seems.
Putting pieces together
It may be going too far to blame Glazer for all these narrative holes. We see the motorcyclist riding the empty roads in the gloom, pulling up just after passing a van, then walking into the dark. He comes out with a woman slumped over his shoulder (one reviewer said he picks her up from the beach but I didn't see it). He dumps her into the back of the van.
We then see Scarlett Johansson undressing the body to don her clothes.
For the visually literate, this tells us (later, if not immediately) that the dead woman is also an alien, that the motorcyclist is another alien who has collected her, and that Johansson will be taking over van duties.
Clever or careless?
It is a clever way to prime viewers not to expect their explanations to come immediately.
But Johansson's alien, we can see, already has human form and skin. The key question of her skin is skipped at this point and never really resolved.
It is also not obvious whether the first woman and the Johansson alien are meant to look alike, though they do vaguely resemble each other, and of course (this is filmland) the clothes fit exactly. The cast list credits Jessica Mance as the dead woman.
Nor is it clear why the first alien's body is on a bright white surface, given the surrounding gloom of the countryside, though some viewers might remember The Matrix.
I know, it's sci-fi alien technology on a low budget, but we have already been primed by the first five minutes to examine the screen minutely for clues, with very little information given for no effort.
The female gaze
Where Glazer's strategy scores is that as Johansson cruises the streets in her van looking for victims, we too inspect each male passerby for his potential use: too young? too old? too thin? What is she looking for? We never learn. Only that they want to have sex with her.
Flickfilosopher MaryAnn Johanson found it incredibly sexist in its story-line and wrote sarcastically: "In the real world, real women are raped and killed all the time by actual human men. But we needed a cautionary tale about sexy lady alien serial killers who prey on unsuspecting horny men."
In fact, the complainer missed the number of times we are shown Johansson cruising for women (though we are never shown any being caught), and there is a whole section devoted to women being made up in a shopping mall.
The manner in which the men are trapped remains inexplicable and rather incredible. Only one man seems to find it odd to be sinking into a black pool and looks around as he walks across the floor towards Johansson, and asks whether he is dreaming.
Gruesome and gormless
One of the victims finds another floating before him in the 'pool' and moves a hand to touch him, but we do not know why, or why he does not help himself.
The scene is there to show us the other man's organs being extracted from his skin, for whatever reason we can only guess. It is horrifying in its speed, but leaves us not much wiser about its import. Is this just a gruesome movie rather than a meditation on human behaviour like 2001: A Space Odyssey?
We have no explanation of why the motorcyclist wants to inspect Johansson (if that is what he is doing), and why he stares into her eyes (except in clichéd terms to spot whether she will betray sympathy for humans).
What happens in Glasgow is the opposite: the humans help each other. A pack of strangers (young girls) take her clubbing. A Czech tourist tries to save a man struggling in the waves, who is trying to save his wife, who is trying to save a drowning dog. Johansson falls in the street (deliberately? that's what it looks like) and men help her to her feet (she apparently did the scene six times with non-acting passers-by). On another occasion, she is given a rose by a man handing them out to motorists though his fingers are bleeding from the thorns.
The decisive step
When she picks up a man with neurofibrosis (Adam Pearson), his lack of contact with other people and isolation leads her to take the decisive step of allowing him to escape (in the version I saw the first time, it was not clear what had happened). In any case, Pearson's performance is touching and apparently depended on his contribution to the script.
At this point she runs away (from her job), and in a lochside restaurant tries some cake (we are not told why), and coughs it up. Moral: she is still not a human. But we can draw no conclusion from this, even if we get the message.
Tommy Cooper's nonsense
She then gets on a bus, and a passenger takes her home and feeds her dinner (or at least shops for it, but there is no dialogue). They watch Tommy Cooper on television doing one of his nonsense skits in a fez (a good touch), and they start to make love.
She suddenly sits up and grabs a lamp to examine herself between her legs. Is it because she was aroused or because she has no vagina? It's not specified, though reviewers have jumped to their own conclusions.
Glazer has not indicated how much she is supposed to know about humans. There's a scene of Johansson examining her body in curiosity (before the lovemaking) that seems to belong much earlier in the film.
She runs into the woods, encounters a logger and then sleeps in a stone hut. She wakes up to find the man caressing her leg. She runs away, and he pursues her, leading to her death when he douses her with gasoline and sets it alight.
But would so little fuel cause so big a conflagration? It didn't make sense at the time and on reflection reeks of Hollywood (see below), where all fires are impressive.
Life in commercialworld
The motorcyclist, hunting or looking for her, is seen standing like the Casper David Friedrich painting of a man on a mountaintop above fog.
Surely this not a homage to the TV series Sherlock? It is more like the video commercial world, which the Sherlock show was imitating. In any case, this time the girl has completely vanished from his control, or so it seems we are meant to understand (but I may be wrong).
This summary omits what many found the most shocking scene in the film: a couple try to rescue their dog from the sea, and a Czech tourist tries to save the husband but collapses exhausted on the pebbles. The Johansson alien (pre-humanization), who has been chatting him up, looks around for a large enough stone, then bashes him on the head. She completely ignores the baby crying on the beach who belongs to the husband and wife with the dog (who both vanish in the sea, we learn later).
In the arc of the story it contrasts with her befriending the neurofibrosis sufferer. As Glazer points out, the killing is filmed matter-of-factly in long shot rather than with "Hollywood" (his term) histrionics.
The neurofibrosis sufferer, by the way, does not escape. After running naked across the fields in cold November weather, he is taken prisoner again by the motorcyclist when climbing through a fence. We do not learn how the male alien knew where to find him, or for sure that he was captured.
But when the motorcyclist is wandering around looking for the Johansson alien — if that is what he is doing rather than simply beating up the countryside on his bike — he seems to lose all his alien GPS powers.
As for Johansson's alien form, it looks very much like her own, just a different colour. What a disappointment.
Narrative indifference, musical glue
In another film, these would be minor flaws. But Skin's style has trained us to be alert to every detail we see and try to puzzle them out. Some reviewers even spoke of indifference to narrative logic.
But the haunting music of Mica Levi manages to hold it together. For her first film project, she was brought in by Peter Raeburn, the music producers. She spent several months in consultation with the director to develop the sounds that recall Bartok at his most enigmatic.
The editor Paul Watts also worked closely with Glazer to produce the feel of the film while cinematographer Daniel Landin gave it a documentary feel where needed and helped make the film into a series of tableaux worthy of an art gallery.
As Glazer noted, it was very difficult to ensure that both actors and non-actors had the same (buttoned-down) realism in their scenes. And Johansson, with the only real acting to do, had somehow to flag her transitions despite a pokerface and permanent bafflement at human ways.
It will take more than one viewing to see whether she succeeded, given the puzzling ways in which the film thwarted our attempts to read its meanings. Sc-fie rather than sci-fi.
Do we ever see her blink? Even on second viewing I didn't notice it. She did, though, have beans on toast before her while watching Tommy Cooper after throwing up her chocolate cake. But I don't think we were meant to draw any conclusions about alien food preferences from this.
Now for the science bit
Jaws was a masterfully paced thriller by a young director who had learned how to pull all the standard switches on the suspense machine.
What is more interesting is how much audiences, too, want this conventional rollercoaster ride of emotions.
In Jaws, the suspense builds almost like a computer program on creating a thriller: the refusal to admit manifest danger is followed by a series of deaths and mounting anxiety, the wrong shark killed, the monster shark's second strike, the concession to the mercenary sea captain, the emotional bonding of the three men, the overwhelming threat of the monster, and the ultimate risktaking to kill the shark in an unconventional way.
Abstractly, each step is a cliché. Concretely, we find ourselves urging Spielberg on to the next stage along the well-trodden path. What gives it value is his skill at avoiding conventional objectivication of key points.
Tell me again
In A Philosophy of Horror (1990), Noël Carroll writes: "Anyone familiar with the genre of horror knows that its plots are very repetitive" (97) but the predictability does not lessen the interest for viewers." Indeed, audiences would appear to desire that the same stories be told again and again" (98).
For psychoanalysis the repetitions serve a very obvious reason: to arouse and then allay unconscious anxieties we cannot consciously or rationally control. We've all seen horror movies where the villain is laid flat then suddenly revives in order to attack the hero or heroine again. Through spectacle and pyrotechnics, Spielberg defeats our expectations (to our pleasure), and offers three life-or-death encounters, one for each of the main characters, before the villain is defeated.
A reverse thriller
Under the Skin uses the opposite strategy from Jaws to achieve its effect — more like 2001 or Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). The arc in Glazer's film goes from test-tube alien to primitive humans (vide 2001). Instead of an alien who wants help from Earth, Johansson's alien comes here to exploit its human resources.
In another reverse of Jaws, Under the Skin takes us from a depiction of cold-blooded horror (the alien corpse, which we only recognize as such later), to the murder on the beach, and then to a drama that is more and more interior, until the final violence.
What is it about?
So, turning our Lacanian spectacles onto the Glazer film. the first question to ask is: if Under the Skin is not about the cruelty in our exploitation of animals (as Faber asserts it is not), what then is it about? In Lacanian terms, what aspect of our psyche does the movie speak to?
The immediate answer might be: our recognition of society's exploitation of ordinary people — given the ugliness of the setting, the dreary beauty of the beach and loch, the unappealing chaos of the nightclub and shopping street scenes.
Not bad for a start. But that would hardly account for the film's mesmerizing power despite not making sense as a 'naturalistic' story or its unmistakeable misogynistic overtones for those sensitive to anti-feminine bias.
The film structured as a language
One of Lacan's most famous dicta is that the unconscious is structured like a language, and language — I think — is a key to the film that explains why Glazer made choices that left him open to the charges of sexism.
The film's spoken track begins with Scarlett Johansson's voice speaking letters from the alphabet and then words, as a series of images segues into a human eye.
We then see a motorcyclist en route to reclaim the dead woman alien and the van. Why is the motorcyclist male? If the film is not misleading us, gender will play an important part in the story.
In the next scene Johansson dons the dead woman's clothes, goes shopping in a mall, and sets out through the Scottish city streets in her van.
Her accent is preternaturally English (she must have been taking lessons from Gillian Anderson). The men who speak to her are almost unintelligible to most viewers (they were non-professional passers-by who were filmed by hidden cameras).
Our first conclusion might be that she is therefore isolated. But in fact it is the men — the people we can identify as being like us — who are shut off by language. And in their gloomy streets and surroundings, their isolation is only increased. None of them are seen with women, and Scarlett the alien pointedly makes sure that they have no relations (our tentative presumption is that she wants to know that they won't be missed if they vanish, though they presumably work).
What we are gazing at is a society that has created hosts of single men who have little or no human link with the rest of the world.
As filmed from the van, it seems amazingly easy to spot men out alone on the street.
Nobody would miss them, then. But nobody would miss them even if they vanished but weren't abducted by aliens, either.
There is no sexual relation
In this lonely world, sex is only a way of connecting and has nothing to do with love (Lacan famously declared "there is no sexual relation", arguing that each partner is stimulated by a fantasy of the other). No wonder, then, that when two victims are together in the black pool, one tries to touch the hand of the other.
This increases the importance of the beach scene where a woman and her husband try to save their dog from the sea while an infant cries in its basket, and the alien woman bashes a wouldbe rescuer in the head.
This is the film's starkest contrast between Earthly human responses and the alien's, and this is the moment in the film where we are meant to feel most distant from the Johansson body collector.
Only we do connect
What the alien woman gradually learns is that people do connect with each other. Responding to the most isolated man she finds, Johansson's alien recognizes that her van and job on Earth are a kind of prison. Her sexual appeal is a trap for herself as well as others (Glazer speaks in an interview of the film as a desexualization of Johansson's public image, despite the nudity).
A jigsaw of images
But the last section of the film shows us that there is no escape for the alien woman, either, except into emptiness.
Her final scenes take place almost without words, just the gasps of her running. Her rapist is completely silent when committing th murder. The insistent music acts as a chorus to our thoughts.
Lonely and doomed
The tragic assemblage of images underlines the loneliness of the human condition. Every verbal contact — whether with potential victims, someone she wants to save (the young man), a man who gives her refuge, and the rapist — leads to violence. The only men together are vandals who attack her van. The unlucky Czech tourist has no contact with the other people on the beach.
Nevertheless, despite the powerful sense of disconnectedness delivered by the narrative, it would have been better for the story if she had learned that the escapee was caught by the motorcyclist, perhaps when he returned with the victim, spurring her decision to flee.
It would have made more sense if we knew whether the victims had to be alive when they are harvested (it seems so) and, if so, how the motorcyclist got the young man to go with him back to the house.
It might have been easier if the motorcyclist could have shapeshifted into a woman or donned a woman's skin at that point, if not before.
We also deserve to know what happened to the first alien woman we saw.
Who are the real aliens?
Most post-1945 alien-visitor movies anthropomorphize the attractions of Earth (Starman, The Man Who Fell to Earth). The original novel of this film was no exception, which apparently has passages in which the aliens are struck by the beauty of the landscape.
It is hard to see the film as making this generalization. The most 'beautiful' scene shows us the completely insensitive motorcyclist on the top of a mountain (the Caspar David Friedrich moment).
The real question here is: who are the real aliens? Only the motorcyclist and pre-transformation Scarlett Johansson are comfortable in this world. Only these two completely satisfy their robotic desires. The shocked customers in the cafe where she regurgitates her chocolate cake seem even more peculiar than the alien in their astonishment rather than curiosity.
The autism issue
Except physically, Johansson does not act autistic, though it has been suggested that autism makes other people appear like zombies whose motivations the sufferers cannot comprehend.
In Social, for example, Matthew D. Lieberman points out: "Not being able to see the world in terms of mental states is a profound disadvantage when everyone else does this naturally" (2013:164).
Certainly, the young men she entices into the black pool seem unable to understand her intentions/mental state and only to project their desires onto her, as does her killer. The young man who she sets free and the man who helps her are the only ones to show concern for what she says. On the bus, the helper repeatedly asks: "Are you all right?"
Perhaps we will find definitive answers in the Director's Cut when it appears on DVD. Perhaps the failings stem from the influence of Kubrick's glacial and overpolished style.
Mass art and ideology
We still have to account for the fascination that Under the Skin exercises over a part of its audience, and the equally virulent rejection by others.
Against the blatant 'emotionality' of Jaws — "merely a variaton on the standard Universal monster movie, albeit an excellent one" (Johnston 235) — Skin exemplifies emotional control and lack of sentimentality (Glazer's male gaze?).
What still seems to need some explanation is the pleasure (in the broadest sense) that viewers can take in bleak parables of psychic life.
The contemporary function of psychoanalysis, Žižek suggests, is to enable citizens to resist industrial society's ideology, that offers us a 'permissive', 'liberal' and hedonistic lifestyle provided we do not turn this into revolutionary action. In his reading of modern industrial societies, the superego orders us to "Enjoy!" or to otherwise feel guilt.
This, for him, is part of the reason we feel pleasure in the pessimism of The Wire. Even cynicism about the possibility of changing society is offered for our pleasure and recognition, while a refusal to accept this nihilism, i.e. political activism, counts as naive utopianism.
As Žižek argues, we do not need to posit a kind of masochism — in the popular misunderstanding of this term — but rather that ideology exploits our sense of individual powerlessness that leads us towards hedonistic alternatives to social action.
What lies beneath
Under the Skin gives us a version of this worldview, without the hedonistic compensations — one reason for its vociferous rejection in some quarters.
In the gallery of horror films, Glazer's film stands rather with The Shining than the Gladiator heroics of Jaws or (much richer and more detailed in its theorizing) The Matrix (1999).
Skin is a minimalist version of the adventure story, but its minimalism is not innocently arrived at, as Glazer's decade-long travail indicates.
Freud was well aware of deceptive simplicities in our phantasies, as he noted in his essay on 'Screen Memories' (1899), memories that falsify events to proffer a more acceptable version to our egos (he writes of this experience several times).
On each occasion, the path to the truth is obtained by stripping away what seem to be the surface of the screening memory to examine what is repressed.
A child is born
In Skin the full-frontal element is Scarlett Johansson's gender and her autistic lack of feeling. Remove these from the story and we have a narrative that runs from a woman's birth to sexual self-discovery, with — in between — the development of a childish ego from complete self-absorption (in her job on Earth) to recognizing a response to others.
The birth scene is followed by the recuperation of the dead alien and the reclaiming of the woman's effects by Johansson. It is possible, taking a psychoanalytical view, to see this scene as the actualization of the common childhood belief that they have replaced a potential sibling who died, but the narrative is ambiguous enough to leave that open, and only in hindsight can we deduce that the other woman is also an alien.
Like a child, the Johansson alien learns of adults' tastes for disgusting food (the Foret Noire cake) and experiences (perhaps) the responsiveness or simple discovery of her sexual organs.
Johansson, of course, has an almost perfect snub-nosed juvenile face and wanders through the film environment like a detached child. If the motorcyclist is the demanding father (and he does treat her as if he is an authority figure), her capturing of the young men could function symbolically as the elimination of rival siblings.
Skin provides an intriguing contrast to Dr No, the James Bond thriller psychoanalysed by Anthony Easthope in The Unconscious (1999:110-1).
The Bond film offers male fantasies almost undisguised according to the terms in which Freud discussed popular fiction of his time: we know the hero will always survive, enabling us to take pleasure in his taking risks and escaping death. But Easthope also points to a disguised Oedipal drama: Bond survives because he does not overtly challenge the Father, except in a surrogate form.
Easthope writes of the Bond film:
As so often in popular culture, the father is imagined as two figures: M the father for identification and No the castrating father. [...] There seem to be two fantasy benefits. The hero is kept back from adult responsibilities that go with actually becoming the father; at the same time he can direct a very pleasurably justified aggression at the castrating father. This split is indeed a fantasy, because the father who castrates and the father with whom a man identifies are one. Fictional narratives, then, enact fantasies that provide unconscious pleasure" (112).
We can identify two father figures in Skin: the motorcyclist and the rapist-killer, who — in contrast to other males — seem to be of a generic older generation.
If Glazer is tapping into this unconscious drama, it can explain why MaryAnn Johanson feels the narrative as sexist, even though the final section meets her criterion for plausibility.
That said, the surreptitious pleasures cannot be as Easthope depicts them, rather the reverse. The Johansson alien might get pleasure from escaping the controlling father but she suffers extreme punishment for it, first by isolation and then by fire when set alight by the rapist-killer. One can say her ego is punished by the two-in-one superego, but a viewer can hardly be expected to watch this with the pleasure of identification or to see this as a satisfactory solution to being in the world.
What seems more relevant here is that narrative can also operate to disguise or reject straightforward assumptions about the unconscious material being manipulated.
Thus, the lack of dialogue and the fragmentary presentation of events in Skin can act as a way of preventing our conscious from recognizing the unconscious issues being manipulated for our satisfaction (in the same way that tragedies are cathartically satisfying — confirming our deeper convictions about the way the world operates).
We follow the Johansson alien when (in close-up) she picks out a fake-fur top in a shop, but we see no indication of how she pays for her purchases, or any scene that tells us how she fills up the van with fuel.
Almost immediately afterwards, she paints her lips a dramatic red. We might read her appearance as 'tarty' or reminiscent of Mick Jagger in Roeg's Performance (1970).
But this make-up session looks also as a small child might carry it out. The lack of demonstration of how she handles money is not just an example of how a child often sees the world but also tells us not to expect such kinds of explanations in this film.
The rationale for the gnomic
The gnomic presentation is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), except that the Stalker 'controls' the mystery in the Soviet film.
When the author overtly takes over this function, it can exasperate viewers who expect the creator to stand outside the film and 'direct' their imaginations rather than present scenes to them for post-facto interpretation.
As a result, in such films (for example, 2001, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, or Jonathan Weiss's The Atrocity Exhibition from J.G. Ballard's novel) viewers use the energy of their imaginations to frantically 'read' scenes for their narrative significance (at the surface) and silently imbibe the more subversive messages being delivered by the symbolic assemblage of events.
The minimalist staging, in a time when films are a minority art compared to television, encourages viewers to expect another level of meaning than the surface narrative.
The strategy in Skin is in line with the rhetorical indirection that Lacan examined in Poe's exemplary story. The gender element, flagged at the beginning of the film, moves back and forth between the spotlight and background. The alien's sex is important for capturing the men but has nothing to do with why she needs them. If we project a sexual reason onto her killing of the Czech tourist, we misread her motives. The bus passenger and the driver would probably not have tried to help her if she had been a man. But she would not have been attacked in the woods, either.
At the ideological/symbolic level, the film can suggest that Johansson, and maybe all women in this alienating industrial society, may seem to act as predator but she also becomes a victim because she is a woman.
This might account for the viewers' reactions who found the narrative distasteful as a stereotyping of women as dangerous.
The focus, at this point, can switch from the content to how viewers can obtain from the film confirmation of their readings of the narrative, given that the movie is not a patient present to tell the psychoanalyst whether the interpretation is right or wrong.
Look at the enthymemes!
Noël Carroll, in A Philosophy of Mass Art, notes the common use by popular art forms of what Aristotle called the enthymeme, a rhetorical syllogism that engages audiences by requiring them to fill in a missing premise (Carroll 1998:397).
The unspoken-question/answer format has an obvious application in the suspense gambit of narratives. But it can also operate at the frame/scene level of movies. Carroll speaks of erotetic narration in many mass market artworks: "encouraging audiences to entertain certain questions that the novels in question then go on to answer" (Carroll 1998:194).
"This question/answer format — which I call erotetic narration — has a kind of natural logic that is easy to follow, in contrast to the narrative structure of a modernist work like Last Year at Marienbad, which presents a barrage of questions that are never decisively answered" (Carroll 1998:194).
What I suggest is that in mass-artworks the syllogism also requires a confirmation of the answer for audiences to really make sense of what we are viewing. Delaying or refusing this confirmation can deepen interest or prompt rejection of a story's credibility by the viewer.
A documentary strategy with missing steps
In Skin the documentary realism, with its inherent ambiguity about purpose, motives and internal response, delays our readings of events as they happen onscreen.
The explanations are presented in horror film form, revealing more and more of the shocking truth of the alien's motives, in steps that proceed as deliberately a logical argument: the black pool, the recognition of another victim, the Daliesque result of extraction of the organs from the skin.
But Skin's argument misses important steps. What happened the Czech tourist, the centre of the most dramatic and the only non-sexual incident? Was he harvested or not? If not, why not, given the previous conversation explicitly telling us he was alone?
I suggest that Glazer found this killing dramatic enough to leave isolated from the logical argument of the film, as his interview suggests (he rejects what he considers a Hollywood treatment of the scene).
Similarly, we never learn what happened to the neurofibrosis victim. Once he has fled from the alien house, we do not return to the black pool, when another view of its contents would have rounded off the explanation of the aliens' behaviour.
By this time Glazer has moved on to Johansson's drama of escape and attempts to live as a human.
A drama of alienation (pun intended)
The missing premise we need to supply in his enthymeme is that this is not a horror film, as we may have imagined, but something else: a narrative of the difficulty of being human in an alienating world.
One young male reviewer felt this segment was so important but puzzling that it needed explanation. It is a demonstration, he says, of how we treat victims of abuse as having become alien, rather than as ordinary people to whom something bad has happened.
A good general point. But is this reading justified by what we see onscreen? Certainly the rapist treats the alien as something to destroy, but nothing in the previous scenes (the stranger on the bus and the uncomprehending restaurant customers) indicates this message.
Under the skin of the story
Generalizing from the narrative, we can deduce that it is fatal to reveal our true selves under our skin, and that the masks we wear are all that the world wants to see.
But this treats the film as giving a message rather than dramatizing a situation. We have already picked up on the alien's superficial traits as being the key to surviving in this world.
Glazer's ending certainly confirms this reading, notably by taking it (as so often in popular art) to its extreme conclusion (vide King Lear and Macbeth).
But popular art also seeks closure, in the popular jargon. That is, it reduces the general point it might seem to be making to a specific (and obviously fictional) incident, so that audiences can go home ruminative but not likely to carry over their disturbance into their immediate life.
Or in psychological terms, all is returned to order and we can continue with our previous lives until the next call on our attention (see Metcalf 2012:121).
This drama of skin and masks, however, lives in tension with another psychological drive, of which Freud spoke most forcefully in his pessimistic late work, translated as Civilization and its Discontents.
We can only live in civilization by repressing our instincts, he argued. Nevertheless these drives will reappear in war (giving them legitimacy), in violence and aggression.
Rhetorically transposed into an unfeeling alien, these drives are then repressed by her move towards a humanistic empathy. This move towards civilization is punished by rape and death. The original sex and aggressive drives return to the surface (for the sake of our self-confidence and satisfaction) in someone else — in Freudian terms by a punishing father figure.
We can read the question posed to the viewer by the narrative of the alien as "What are the conditions for our dying?" The banal and poignant answer, of course, is "Being human". Starman offered a more moving version, when the Jeff Bridges alien choses to become mortal in order to stay on Earth. The alien in Starman sacrifices his immortality — which is more than we who are already human can do.
However, Under the Skin gives us a closing scene that provides another answer to the question. This is: "Stay alien and you die as well" (which the opening scene on Earth with the motorcyclist also told us, in hindsight).
On the surface the movie is the familiar concatenation of desire and death, an Uncanny conjunction so commonplace it is hard to imagine a serious author in the 21st century exploiting it except as parody or pastiche.
The extreme simplification of the story makes it impossible for the average informed viewer not to recognize the pattern, while the treatment of the theme speaks for pastiche rather than parody. This can explain why viewers without a taste for po-faced reproduction of a psychological case study rejected it fiercely.
But is there any subversive or alternative reading, as John Fiske and his cultural studies colleagues such as Umberto Eco expect and even demand?
Skin fails to exploit the most available carrier of narrative meaning: the contrast between the beginning and the end. What is the difference between the death of the first woman alien we see and the Scarlett Johansson figure? Does the death by burning indicate that the motorcyclist no longer has a partner?
The other most obvious vector for a different reading is the contrast between her indifference and the unthinking human fellow-feeling demonstrated with each encounter.
Unfortunately, we do not see why the Johansson alien leaves the man with whom she spends the night when she discovers the physicality of her body.
That would have required a discussion of her experience which Skins consistently refuses to stage, leaving it to the music throughout to detach us from any subjective or verbal interpretation. Glazer, I fear, had no other answer.
You might want to compare this film with Smilla's Sense of Snow (1996) for its similar combination of style, alienation and absurdity.
Sam Kench: The Untold Truth of Under The Skin. Looper. 25 August 2022.
Noël Carroll. 1990. The Philosophy of Horror, Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge. ISBN: 9780415901451.
Noël Carroll. 1998. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford:New York: Clarendon Press /Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0198711298.
Anton Chekhov. 1888. Letter to A.S. Suvorin in The Works of Anton Checkov. Kindle. Reprint 2010.
C.R.S. Cockrell. The Lady with the Dog. In Roger Cockrell, and D. J. Richards, eds. 1985. The Voice of a giant: essays on seven Russian prose classics. Exeter: University of Exeter. ISBN: 0859892417.
Antony Easthope. 1999. The unconscious. The new critical idiom. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN: 0415192080.
Thomas Richard Fahy, ed. 2010. The philosophy of horror. The philosophy of popular culture. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN: 9780813125732.
Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1984), 155.
Matthew D. Lieberman. 2013. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect Crown Publishing Group.
David Marc, Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).
Greg Metcalf. 2012. The DVD novel: how the way we watch television changed the television we watch. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger. ISBN: 9780313385810.
Lis Møller. 1991. The Freudian reading: analytical and fictional constructions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN: 0812231260.
Laura Mulvey. 2006. Death 24x a second: stillness and the moving image. ISBN: 1861892632 / 9781861892638.
Barbara Seidman. "The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks": Jane Fonda, Feminism, and Hollywood. In Todd 1988.
Janet M. Todd, ed. 1988. Women and film. Women & literature new ser., v. 4. New York: Holmes & Meier. ISBN: 0841909369.
Charlie Jane Anders. 2014. Under The Skin Is About "De-Eroticizing" Scarlett Johansson. io9.com. 4 January 2014.
Don't miss the YouTube material from Chris Stuckmann, which offers another take on the film.
ralphthemoviemaker review on YouTube (13:43 minutes).
The Cutting Room on Under the Skin: a bit overwrought, the first six minutes of this podcast totalling 38:49 minutes.
Just for fun: 1,2,3 WTF? (Watch the Film), with excerpts.
Rape makes us see people as victim/aliens
DP/30 @ 'TIFF13, 19:30
Archetypal Messages In The Amazing Film Under The Skin
imdb links to critic reviews
MaryAnn Johanson, flickfilosopher: Critical of story.
Britt Hayes on ScreenCrush, an alternative female view.
Jonathan Glazer's music videos and commercials on YouTube.
As cited in the original source.
Brooks Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
Shoshana Felman, "To Open the Question," in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading. Otherwise, ed. Felman ( Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 5; Felman's italics.
John Fiske, Understanding the Popular (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989); and Reading the Popular (London: Unwin Human, 1989).
Sigmund Freud. 1899. "Screen Memories." In The Standard Edition, vol. III.
Sigmund Freud, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva" (1907), Standard Edition, vol. IX.
Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Everest House, 1981), 27.
Kofman Sarah. L'enfance de l'art: Une interprétation de l'esthétique freudienne. Paris: Payot, 1970.
Joan Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1973), 53-56.
Robert Solomon, “Kitsch,” in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 450, 453.
Spence Donald P. Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982.
Thoman, E., & Jolls, T. (2005). Media literacy education: Lessons from the center for media literacy. In G. Schwartz & P. U. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (Vol. 104, 2005, pp. 180 -205). Malden, MA: National Society for the Study of Education
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