Shades Of Noir: Under The Skin

Inside that Alien skin, you hear the beating of a human heart.

  Under the Skin  (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

BY LEZA CANTORAL

Under the Skin is like a celluloid skin that you crawl inside of. It is the most intimate role that Scarlett Johansson has taken on. Her skin is the film’s skin. She is an alien in a strange land, but the audience is right there with her. The intimacy is palpable and almost claustrophobic. There is very little dialogue to disrupt the experience of seeing the world through her eyes.

Scarlett Johansson is a sex symbol. By casting her as an emotionless and alien creature who barely speaks and commits inexplicable acts of seduction and manslaughter, director Jonathan Glazer forces us to re-evaluate how we perceive her.

She is not a sex object, but rather the sex subject.

The dispassionate camera lens shows the viewer the familiar object: Scarlett Johansson, the movie star, driving through the streets of Scotland. The entrancing musical score by Mica Levi is the heartbeat of the film. Visually, the film is reminiscent of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. The soundtrack, however, evokes the mood of an Alfred Hitchcock film in certain parts. It is sheer Noir suspense. Part Lost Highway, part 2001 Space Odyssey and part Psycho; this film evokes a true eeriness that cuts to the core of what it feels like to inhabit a human skin.

Like a Hitchcock film, it is deeply psychological and yet obtuse at the same time. It is a character study that poses more questions than answers. It presents you with a mystery that only deepens the further you go. It tricks you and lures you in.

The sensuality of Under the Skin is palpable. Scarlett Johansson is not trying to seem alluring, but she is. Her sex appeal is undeniable. Her eyes are feral and faraway. Her mouth is bright red and inescapable. Her inner beauty shines out of the quiet eerie darkness of this film that feels more like some ancient Scottish Folktale than a Science Fiction film.

The alien has replaced the fey in our modern cultural mythos.

She could be an elemental, a changeling, or a deadly Siren from the ocean depths. Instead, she is a Siren from the cosmic unknown. She is a Sci-fi Lovecraftian creature.

She is a succubus from the stars.

She lures her victims into a dark and reflective space that is reminiscent of a placid moonlit lake. She doesn’t even have to speak after the initial small talk. She simply disrobes and walks and they follow. She promises sex and instead she delivers death. She is the Femme Fatale in alien form.

She has no morals. She only has her primal instinct. She does not seem to hold any ill will towards her victims, she even seems to kind of like them. It’s nothing personal. It is simply about survival.

The viewer is put in the place of her victims as well. Just as she presents them with sex and then pulls that rug out from under them by murdering them, she does it to the audience as well.

Her character is pure instinct. She is the predator, the hunter. She turns the mirror upon us and we are forced to look inside ourselves at the area where our animal and our human self overlap. Instinct, survival, sex, murder, attraction, adrenaline. The human being, like all animals, shows the same physical responses to arousal as to fear: the pupils dilate, the heartbeat races, the body releases endorphins. Fight or flight. Fuck or kill.

Jonathan Glazer has created a symbolic experience; a maze of visual hieroglyphs. Scarlett is the central symbol. She already represents several things: Hollywood glamour, sex appeal, and femininity. When you see her in this context, you are forced to look deeper within yourself at what those things mean to you. This is how her alieness actually humanizes her.

The grotesque is rendered beautiful when she meets the deformed man, who is truly as he appears in real life. Adam Pearson did not wear any makeup or prosthetics. The scene between them is raw and sensual. There is a human connection. It makes her feel less alien to be with a man who also must hide his true self from the world. They both have a secret, but unlike her, his secret is not under his skin. It is written plainly on his deformed face.

She can relate to him. She knows what it feels like to be judged by her surface. By she; I mean both the character and Scarlett Johansson, the actress. This was a role that took her far away from her traditional terrain.

To be a star is to be remote and beautiful. An object that you yearn for but can never touch. Something eternal, something timeless, something beyond perfection. In this film Scarlett is flawed and imperfect, she is very real and very present. She is demystified, both as a sexual being and as a movie star.

The disconnect between what you see on the surface and what lurks inside is made plain in this scene. The man who is outwardly deformed is sweet and gentle and the woman who is outwardly beautiful is a coldblooded killer. Surfaces reveal secrets but they also hide them.

This film is also not what it appears on its surface. It is a sensory journey that must be experienced to be felt. It invites you in. Like the deadly Succubus, it simply lures with atmosphere and mystery. You lean in closer and closer until you have fallen down the spiraling rabbit hole of this dark and sensual journey.

This film performs the trick of making the Other familiar.

Inside that Alien skin, you hear the beating of a human heart.


Leza Cantoral is the author of Planet Mermaid and editor of Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective. She writes a feminist column about noir film for Luna Luna Magazine called Shades of Noir and writes about pop culture for Clash Media. Her upcoming collection of short stories, Cartoons in the Suicide Forest, will be coming out later this year through Bizarro Pulp Press. You can find her short stories at lezacantoralblog.wordpress.com and tweet her at @lezacantoral.