Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 science fiction film Under the Skin is a supremely stylized, innately profound work that utilizes kaleidoscopic visuals and an unsettling performance from Scarlett Johannson to explore issues of the male gaze and take them to their furthest conclusion. Telling the story of an alien (Johansson) who comes to Earth and entices men with sex for her own twisted, mysterious purposes, Under the Skin charts the progression of a woman’s experience by simultaneously giving her a power and a predatory agency that women are not typically afforded, then stripping that agency away bit by bit as she becomes more ‘human.’ Through its unconventional, minimalist narrative structure and unsettling sound/editing design, Under the Skin deftly explores the nature of the gaze, the inherent violence of humanity, and the metatextual experience of seeing and being seen as a cinematic object.
The narrative structure of Under the Skin is incredibly abstracted and minimalist, contributing to the feeling of unease it instills in the audience. Most notable of these issues is the minimal dialogue – most of the scenes go by without any dialogue spoken, thus lending a further sense of mystery to Johansson’s motivations or emotional journey. Rather than being explicit about the woman’s alien nature or her mission on Earth, the mission simply commences with nary an alien element to it – Johansson looks like a normal human woman, and her mysterious handler takes the form of a tall, silent motorcyclist. The audience is left to infer what is going on in the central character’s mind through the use of image and nonverbal acting, which Glazer and Johansson provides in ample quantities.
The opening scene, in which a young woman, unmoving, is brought into a white van, offers no dialogue to explain who these people are or what is going on. However, as we watch a nude Johansson methodically strip the immobile woman of her clothes and don them, Glazer indicates a number of story elements: that Johansson is an alien of sorts, that the motorcyclist is her handler, she is taking the woman’s clothes, and her motivations may not be friendly to humanity. Using no words at all, simply relying on the uncanny performance of Johansson and the mise-en-scene of the white, Construct-like nature of the van’s interior, Glazer conveys story and narrative.
Structurally, the actual seduction scenes play somewhere out of time and space as well – where the changing in the van takes place in a white void, the myriad scenes in which Johansson seduces the men silently exist in a pitch-black void, slowly trapping the nude men in an invisible goo that eventually sucks them under (while still being able to see Johansson walking away from them). These scenes are highly symbolic in nature in a more overt way than many others in the film, showcasing the way in which men lose their power and agency, and grow fearful while Johansson confidently strides further and further away from them.
Another fundamental component of the narrative structure is the film’s early acts, in which Johansson drives around in her van, chatting up lonely men along the road to bring back to her lair to consume or entrap. Many of these men are non-actors, these scenes filmed with Johansson simply driving around the streets of Scotland and talking to them in-character. This filmmaking approach lends the film a degree of uncanny realism and voyeurism; audiences who are aware of the film’s behind-the-scenes approaches are acutely aware of the fact that the men in the shot are being fooled, in a way – not actors as part of a scene, but real people being pranked into interacting with Scarlett Johansson.
This fascinating approach lends a metatextual element to the narrative storytelling, as Johansson and Glazer thematically engage in the kind of deception and trickery Johansson’s character within the film performs on the men. The audience is then made uncomfortable by the greater role they play as the witness to this disquieting deception, understanding on some level that the men are not actors, nor are they pretending; however, Johansson, like her predatory character, is tricking and fooling them.
Central to the film’s structure is Johansson’s performance as the woman, an innately sexualized being who deliberately fashions herself to appear attractive to the men who become her targets. Johansson’s character is dressed early on with a seductive mixture of tight jean-leggings, a fluffy fur jacket, and black heels – somewhere between club girl and prostitute. It is entirely deliberate that she would take on such a tawdry and sexually arousing outfit, as her character is meant to use sex to entice her targets. This has a dual role in subverting the audience’s expectations for her, as they themselves fix their gaze on Johansson’s sensually-captured figure. Just as Johansson herself is a sex symbol in modern-day Hollywood, her character uses the ‘skin’ of someone like that to achieve deliberate effects on men to achieve her own agenda.
This is, of course, turned on its head when the Woman’s own perception of her deeds is reevaluated after meeting a man with a deformed face, who then inspires her to begin exploring a sense of humanity. This sets off the latter half of the movie, which turns the narrative structure of the film on a parabola; just as Johansson was herself the predator in the early acts of the film, unquestioningly sending men to their death, Johansson’s increased humanity makes her ever more the victim. When she finally defies her masters and runs away, she begins exploring new aspects of humanity and attempting to fit in – she interacts with people in a much humbler, more downcast way, dressing more conservatively. In one scene, she attempts to enjoy the tactile pleasures of food by ordering a slice of chocolate cake in a restaurant; however, she cannot swallow food, so she must spit it out.
Later, when she finds herself under the care of another man, she attempts to have the kind of real sex that she teased her previous targets with, only to find herself alarmed at her own genitals (it is implied that they do not exist, or do not consist of real orifices). This increased horror at the experience of being a human woman culminates in her death by a symbolic sexual assault in a forest, as a logger burns her alive after attempting to rape her. In the end, she becomes the victim of the kind of assaults she herself was inflicting on others; however, Glazer uses this final act of violence to indict humanity for its destructive nature rather than allowing Johansson’s character to get her just desserts.
The narrative parabola that takes place, where Johansson turns from predator to prey, is Glazer’s way of exploring the abject experiences women in modern society face. In many ways, the first half of the film demonstrates a reversal of contemporary rape culture, in which it is the woman who becomes the incredibly deadly predator that men should take care to avoid. Johansson’s singular objective, her predatory driving around the streets of Scotland, places her, as a woman, in the rare position of having the power that most men enjoy in patriarchal, hegemonic society. In this extent, Under the Skin can be viewed as a kind of radical feminist film, as Johansson becomes a vengeful spirit for the women who find themselves feeling unsafe walking home at night. In this film, it is the men who are victimized.
However, Jonathan Glazer takes the second half to explore a more nuanced and complex journey towards discovering the strangeness of humanity, while affirming the dangers of male feelings of sexual dominance over women. It is only in her position as an alien predator that Johansson has self-assured power over human men; over the course of the film, she loses that grip in the face of man’s increasing violence and entitlement to her body. In an early indicator of her reversal of fortune, Johansson’s van is attacked and assaulted by a group of drunk men attempting to make a pass at her. As she defies orders and tries to become more human (inspired by the kindness and sincerity of the disfigured man), she learns that not all men are nice like he is. Even the helpful man who takes her in for the night expects sex from her. By the time the film culminates in the destruction of her body by the logger at the end, the film has come full circle to showing men destroying the lives, agency, and sexual autonomy of women.
Critical to Glazer’s work in Under the Skin is the incredible, disquieting score by Mica Levi, as well as the film’s editing (courtesy of editor Paul Watts). Levi’s score is chiefly viola-based, eschewing traditional melodic orchestral scoring for a droning, whining single viola and electronic percussion that pervades much of the film’s soundscape. There is little melody or rhythm to be found in Levi’s score, much of her viola playing warped or manipulated by pitch or tempo to increase the uncanniness of the sound. The percussion and distorted speeds create a kind of tribal sound that feels like an alien’s idea of what seductive human music would sound like, fitting perfectly into Johansson’s uncanny approach to seducing her prey. The music itself never offers a moment’s rest for the viewer, keeping them at a constant state of unease with the lack of connection to anything melodic or rhythmic. Minimalist, but used to great effect, Levi’s score encapsulates the dread-filled atmosphere of Under the Skin.
Paul Watts’ editing plays an important role in establishing the unconventional narrative structures and plotting of the film. Elliptical editing is used persistently and to great effect to keep the audience displaced in time and space. Very rarely is the audience given the chance to see a character distinctly move from one place to another in real time; instead, Glazer and Watts will cut away at crucial moments to show a different scene or image, leaving the viewer to infer in their imaginations what has occurred. This is clearest in many of Johansson’s driving scenes – it is unclear where she is coming from or where she is going. All that matters is that she is in the act of driving, searching. This editing style is most clearly felt in the character of the handler, whose comings and goings are rarely shown in their entirety. In the latter half of the film, when he is in pursuit of Johansson, there is never a clear sense of where he is going or how close he is to finding her, just that he is looking for her. In this way, Glazer commits most to creating the feeling of pursuit and tension, without worrying necessarily about geography or a specific ticking clock Johansson must beat to survive. Instead, Glazer’s elliptical editing keeps the viewer constantly on their toes, wondering where or when these moments might be taking place. Watts’ editing contributes to Under the Skin’s overall sense of disorientation and psychedelia with these approaches.
Through its strange, opaque narrative and inhuman sound/editing, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is one of the most potent, intense and thought-provoking science fiction films of the last decade. By eschewing all narrative convention and focusing on a visuals/editing-heavy way of storytelling, Glazer and Johannson blur the lines between fiction and reality and turn the everyday world of Scotland into an alien landscape upon which a predator does her work. Levi’s screeching, droning score contributes further to the abject nature of the film, and Watts’ dreamlike editing keeps the audience unmoored in time and space. The elliptical nature of the story begins with Johansson being the predator and ending the prey, raising questions as to which species is the real monster. All of these factors and more contribute to an innately fascinating film that explores the nature of humanity, the struggle of women in a patriarchal world, and the ongoing cycle of predator and prey that exists within nature.
(word count: 1995)
Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” in the Context of Black Narcissus
One of the fundamental and fascinating elements of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” is her opposition to the kind of subtextual and allegorical readings that many critics and scholars take towards art, particularly film. For Sontag, analysts often ignore the surface level complexities of a text in favor of imposing on them an allegorical reading that does not necessarily reflect anything found in the film. For her, many critics have a problem actually writing about the film itself, instead using allegory and symbolism to use the film as a loose framework to talk about something else. To that end, film criticism then becomes a puzzle in which critics need to discern the ‘true’ meaning behind a text, positioning the critic as a trailblazer and original thinker: “Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy” (Sontag).
For Sontag, form trumps content in film criticism: where most people hope to interpret the form of a film in order to find its content, Sontag believes that critics should focus more on describing said content. In hoping to return to a more ‘honest’ form of film criticism in Sontag’s mind, one has to return to a more sensory experience of describing the film itself, not waxing philosophical about whatever loose connections the critics make in their mind. As Sontag notes, “It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted” (Sontag). In this way, Sontag demonstrates a disregard for any kinds of symbols in works of art, even ones that are intended; even if an artist presents them as things to be interpreted, the critic must resist that impulse.
Looking at Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 drama Black Narcissus, for example, the Sontag-ian approach to criticism would involve describing the aesthetic forms of Deborah Kerr’s performance, the stunningly massive matte paintings and bold, Technicolor photography that is part and parcel of a Powell/Pressburger film. All of these things could be described as a means to describe the effect of the movie as an effective or ineffective film from a formal perspective. However, where Sontag would fall short is in describing these elements as individual shots or symbols to weave a greater thematic or symbolic whole. Themes of sexual repression and erotic desire among the nuns, particularly the hysterical madness of Sister Ruth and the tension between Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean, would hew too close to interpretation to be comfortable for Sontag. While these surface-level readings may be somewhat more palatable, since they are acutely present within the text, more extreme readings like Black Narcissus demonstrating the evils of colonialism and the Catholic Church would be decried as empty symbols that critics hoped to write about instead of writing about the film itself.
In essence, Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” calls for an end to Lacanian psychoanalytical, subtext and theme-based interpretations of a film’s content and calls for a return to the sensory effect of a film’s form. In the case of Black Narcissus, the focus should be placed on Powell and Pressburger’s astounding color cinematography and visuals, as well as the charming sets and performances, and their overall aesthetic effect on the film and its audience. Discussion of themes, symbols, allegories and the like, particularly if they are not explicitly present within the diegesis of the film, are soundly discouraged as distractions. Instead, Sontag wishes critics to focus more on the images and sounds of film and what it shows them, rather than selectively cherry-picking alternative readings to suit their own ends.
Glazer, Jonathan (dir.) Under the Skin. Perf. Scarlett Johansson. A24 Films, 2014.
Powell, Michael, and Eric Pressburger (dirs.). Black Narcissus. Perf. Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean
Simmons. General Film Distributors, 1947.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” 1964.