Who is that?
In Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Scarlett Johansson’s character is never named. She isn’t named Isserley, as she is in the novel. She is just she. She’s the otherworldly woman. The alien woman. She is and yet isn’t a woman. She’s beautiful, as women are supposed to be, and sensuous, as women are supposed to be. But she’s the predator with a coat of brown fur that prowls in a white van, who men aren’t afraid of because they haven’t learned to be afraid of smiling strangers quick to ask personal questions. She’s moulded into an unreal woman, a woman who would beckon strange men into her car on a deserted road in the middle of the night. She is alien, literally, and her human alter-ego is a male fantasy. Her apathetic stare as her prey is swallowed is shocking. But there is both tragedy and triumph in watching her consume those men who would have consumed her.
Under the Skin is a sharp slice of metaphysical surreality that, like 2001: A Space Odyssey which it echoes in its opening, takes us to the edge of human existence. But it also burrows deep beneath the surface and explores what it means to be a woman.
She first examines herself in a mirror as she applies red lipstick before she hunts, that symbol of feminine eroticism. As she strips down to black lingerie and beckons her prey (and us, seduced along with them), her body is reflected in the surface of the dark void that swallows them whole. An encounter with a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) provokes empathy in her for the first time. She releases him and stares at herself in a mirror for a long time: who is that? For women, gazed upon in film and so rarely the gazers, appearance is everything, defining who we are to our audience far more than our thoughts or feelings. Who the fuck is that, painted with lipstick? Is she still predator, or is she something else? She gazes at herself and wonders.
She almost finds herself settled in a neat, normal little life. A stranger on a bus (Michael Moreland) is interested in her and takes her into his home. They blankly watch television, dinners on their laps, a parody of heterosexual domestic bliss. She examines her nude body closely in a mirror. Am I this woman now? The lipstick and fur coat have gone. There’s an echo of fairy tale: he carries her, bridal-style, over a deep puddle and leads her gently down the dark spiral steps of a castle. Is he truly kindly, or is he taking advantage of an attractive, silent woman, lost and alone? There’s confusion and desire and fear on her face when they kiss and begin to have sex. But something’s wrong and they stop abruptly. She examines her genitals. She’s too alien. The whole sequence made me ache with sadness and something like recognition.
Deep in the forests of the Scottish Highlands, she wanders. The landscape is brutal, stark, beautiful, like she is, and unforgiving, like she was. Now she’s discovered compassion and her own humanity she’s vulnerable to the worst than humans can do. A logger (Dave Acton) gropes her, chases her, attempts to rape her and tears her skin, revealing a smooth, coal-black body beneath. Her alien and human selves irrevocably separated, she pulls off her human face and her two selves gaze at each other. Who is that? The logger douses her in petrol and sets her alight. She burns to death. Once a man-eating alien becomes a woman she can’t wander in the woods without violence.
I felt a strange kinship with her. The film is a stunning exploration of that universal human experience: loneliness. Images of Glasgow’s revellers, talking, laughing, being alive, are tinted gold and layered into a swirling mass of movement, dancing around each other. Her face looms in the centre of the frame, surrounded by vitality and yet isolated from it. How much time have I spent walking through London alone, sometimes leaving a social situation and feeling relieved yet deflated to be once again alone in my own head? We all, sometimes, feel alien. But while loneliness is universal, her loneliness is female. All women live with the societal pressure of performing desirable femininity, a role which she must perform to survive. Her attempt to discard her performance and become a “real” woman ends in rape and murder. Humans are just as cruel as aliens, and being a woman is dangerous. At the beginning of the film she takes the clothes from a female corpse. A tear falls from the dead woman’s eye. Whether this is a human woman or her alien predecessor is unclear but the inevitability of their fate is not.
She is The Female, according to the credits, or “the alien” according to many synopses, but in the feature on the DVD about the editing she is suddenly referred to as Laura. That’s my name. Hearing it was bizarre, shiver-inducing. She’s referred to as Laura in multiple reviews and articles about the film and I would love to know why the name was chosen and yet unchosen. The coincidence only deepened this odd feeling that this character and I were somehow alike. Perhaps stories about being human are best told through the eyes of the alien. But to me Under the Skin is so specifically about being a woman and being a woman incorrectly, and of the simultaneous desire and fear to shed your “Otherness”. I never expected to identify with a man-eating alien, but of course the film taps into that other very human emotion: empathy. She might have been constructed in the film’s opening minutes and torn apart at the end but as her ashes intermingle with falling snow and become part of the earth so she’s left a haunting, lasting impression on me.