In which I think out loud about a film I watched: Under The Skin

Content note: This post contains spoilers for Under The Skin, and a discussion of rape and sexual violence. 

This week I finally got round to seeing Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi film about sex and aliens and stuff. As I mull it over, I still can’t quite digest my feelings about it; I’m not sure if I necessarily liked it, but it certainly made me feel things. It was beautiful to look at, providing an arty and distinctly alien view of Glasgow, and the sound engineering was absolutely stunning. Scarlett Johansson delivered a spectacular performance as the alien protagonist. It was pleasingly oblique, with plenty of room for interpretation (or polite befuddlement).

What touched me hardest was that I’ve never seen a film which has summed up my own feelings about heterosexuality so perfectly. We see the world through the eyes of an alien wearing the body of a beautiful woman, and her confusion and disgust at the way men react to her. We see her making polite small talk with men who want to impress her, we see her horror as she enters a meat market night club, and we see her weary acquiescence to being cared for by a man in a time of need. All of it is presented as disorienting and weird, oddly repetitive, and thoroughly and completely unsexy. This is largely how I feel in my interactions with men who I can tell want to have sex with me, and I don’t blame her at all for spending a lot of the second half of the film running away.

For a predatory alien, it is also rather striking how conditional her power is. She is only capable of killing when she has successfully lured men back to her house and undertaken the procedure for suspending them in oil. At all other times, she is helpless, apart from one brief window of opportunity where she is presented with a weakened and near-unconscious man. Even under these ideal conditions, it is hinted at that the alien is not acting of completely her own volition: throughout, we see her shadowed by a male motorcyclist minder.

The climactic scene of the film cements these themes, as her conditional power and the strangeness of heterosexuality converge. A man attempts to rape the alien in an isolated forest. She is powerless in this situation, away from her safe space and up against a man physically stronger than her. It is only the rapist’s disgust that prevents the rape: in the violence, her skin is torn from her body, and her true form is revealed. This disgust does not save her: she is set on fire by the rapist and is ultimately killed.

I didn’t like the ending at all, because it was a story I have heard all too many times before, albeit with a metaphor of an alien tacked on. Sadly, it seemed inevitable from a narrative perspective.

This is, of course, my reading of the film as a queer woman. I almost can’t see how it’s not about what I think it’s about, but I know it can’t be. This was a film made by men, and as such, the likelihood of them setting out to make a film exploring these themes is phenomenally unlikely. So I sit and wonder exactly what they had in mind. Is it working through fear of female sexuality? Are they trying to equivocate the alien’s predation with that of the rapist at the end? Knowing this film was made by men makes me understand it less. And yet, if this film had been made by women, this exact same film, I don’t doubt that rather than being lauded, it would have been panned as these themes would have been more readily accessible and the mainstream is not ready for a film like that.

I recommend watching, if you haven’t already. Technically, it’s a brilliant film, and I’d love to know if others saw what I saw.

6 thoughts on “In which I think out loud about a film I watched: Under The Skin”

  1. Another theme I’ve been thinking about as I mull this film over in my mind is her sense of isolation. The alien is clearly shown to be deeply… not necessarily lonely, but very much–if you’ll pardon the pun–alienated. In tandem with this, the alien is not shown to interact with women, aside from a very brief scene where a group of women tell her she’s beautiful and sweep her up into the nightclub (they are never seen again).

    I wonder how the alien would have interacted with women, if she even could have. Would she have been more capable of connection? More capable of empathy, like the empathy she felt for the man with neurofibromatosis? Or would she have destroyed them as meat like she did with men? Would the film have ended differently, and would her story have played out differently? I feel like it would have.

  2. I saw it a few weeks ago, but haven’t really been able to articulate (or even make up my mind) what I made of it. This review is, I think, the closest match to my impression of it that I’ve read so far.

    I didn’t see it as equivocating the alien’s and rapist’s respective actions. The alien is entirely disinterested in human affairs (for the first two thirds or so of the film, anyway), whereas the rapist portrayed as being very “mundanely” (can’t think of a better word) human.

    It’s also interesting how, with the unpleasantly one-sided conversation prior to the rape, the film doesn’t hesitate to directly associate unwanted attention in an isolated space (“Dawkins’ elevator”) with physical violence.

    Really interesting write-up, thanks for posting it!

    1. Hadn’t noticed the direct line from space invasion to physical violence but you’re spot on with that!

      (as an aside, I totally dig your handle *netrunner fistbump*)

  3. Good write up. I think to an extent that the intent of the film is almost irrelevant since a part of me feels that it was left blank and ambiguous enough to allow multiple readings. It very much wilfully refuses to explain anything. Your reading, though, was close to mine, although I think towards the end she starts to relate to her body which I think leads to the near breakdown as she becomes aware of the limitations and helplessness that in causes her. I think earlier on she doesn’t view herself as helpless or powerless, but certainly at odds with her body and the men around her. I think it important that the man she has most empathy for is the disfigured man.

    My reading of it since has been coloured by reading the book upon which it’s based (well worth a read). It’s got the same premise, but is very different, not least because it’s from her perspective and is explicit as to what she feels and thinks. Far more sci-fi, and generally about exploitation, power and dehumanisation of others, and I think makes her a very strong protagonist, perhaps a lot more so than in the film depending on your reading of her depiction. I think some of that is absent from the film as I don’t think the end would have been the same had they been strictly working on the themes in the book, but as I say I think some of the ambiguity is purposeful.

  4. This is a really good write-up! I felt a lot of the same things about it I think. The most devastating moment, for me, is when the man looking after her (tries to) have sex with her – for once, you’d thought that there might be a man who didn’t want that from her, but inevitably everything is drawn back into the one relation she’s permitted to have with men. It’s brutal.

    There’s also the moment when the rapist in the woods asks her a question – “are you out here on your own?” – that perfectly mirrors her questions to her potential abductees. I’m still thinking about that and what it implies – does it suggest rapists are monsters, or does it suggest her predations are mundane in comparison to the way human men prey on human women?

  5. I’ve only just left a screening of this, after a 14 hour day at work but just wanted to add my initial response. I saw the sexuality and isolation too but in addition/entwined with those, I saw commentary about beauty, ageing and self-esteem.
    Really enjoyed your write-up Stavvers.
    I will no doubt be pondering about this for days.

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