One of Scarlett Johansson’s more obscure roles, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” follows Laura, an alien located in Scotland, as she uses her sexuality to drown the life out of men, literally. Because the film leaves a number of questions left to the viewer’s interpretation, the first screening may come as a complete cloud of “What the fuck?” However, after some critical thinking and a bit of research, the message I had been grappling to understand became clear. “Under the Skin” is about the differences between men and women when it comes to vulnerability and emotion. Particularly when women express complications or concerns with their personality and/or physical well-being. And finally, the movie plays off of the animalistic nature of men in terms of their sexuality, urges, and methods of getting what they desire.
This interpretation in no way seeks to claim that all men are willing to jump into a van at night if there is an opportunity for a sexual encounter. Or that all men will go to extremes to release their urges, and in turn mutilate a woman’s capability of living a “normal” life (not that women are unable to ever recover from rape, but life forever shifts when a violation of your own being occurs).
Viewers first get a sense of the difference between men and women when Laura greets men by pulling up beside them as they walk, in a big white van. As a woman, walking alone, particularly at night, and having a big ole van pulling up beside me is a giant indicator that terrible things are about to happen and I better haul ass while at the same time dialing 911. The idea that the men in the film, many of whom were not actors but general people who happened to be walking on the day that Glazer was out filming, speaks more loudly to the unbelievable difference between male and female reaction to a random van pulling up beside them and choosing to get in. There’s this idea that women could not possibly be a threat to men because, generally speaking, we lack the physical strength to harm a man or violate a man’s body. This movie seeks to claim that although women may not physically be able to take advantage of someone, we can easily use our sexuality to get what we desire. Offer a man an opportunity for sex, and he will willingly walk into a dangerous situation and allow you to take advantage of him. And again, to be clear, this is an interpretation of the movie and not me speaking directly to every man or every woman out there.
The film shifts when Laura discovers that she is unable to experience human emotion, and is incapable of engaging in sex. That’s not what her body was designed for. When she lures the men into the large black pool of nasty goop, she merely walks in front of them and undresses. Never does she allow them to touch her. Her way of communicating with these men, or showing interest, is done through an examination of other people’s interactions and mimicking those. But her job finally shifts when she decides to mirror what compassion looks like, and unfortunately or fortunately, experiences it for the first time. This shock to her alien being forces her to then seek out other human activity that people find enjoyment in, i.e. eating a piece of cake, agreeing to let someone take care of her, and sex. But her job is not to take part in these activities. Her job is to find men to willingly walk into a dark pool of goop that will break down their bodies, never to be seen again.
When Laura realizes that she has no vaginal opening, or female genitalia, she flees from the man’s house, unsure of who she is and what she is supposed to be. It’s a moment that many people experience in their lives, who am I, and what am I here to do? Not only that, the discovery of our own sexuality, desires, genitalia, is a shocking experience. And when you don’t look like the standard definition of whatever genitalia is supposed to look like, you’re going to have a moment of “what the fuck is wrong with me?”
Unfortunately, after getting thrown into the pit of vulnerability, Laura then experiences full body violation. She’s new to Earth, she doesn’t know that as a woman, walking alone in a forest can be highly dangerous. And indeed, our fear comes alive when a seemingly nice man chooses to get what he wants from her despite her fight against it. His goal is shaken when he’s torn off a bit of flesh from her back, revealing her true nature. And in that vulnerable moment, he looks at her in disgust, finds some gasoline and lights her on fire. Sending a jarring message of “this is what it looks like when we disregard vulnerability because there’s nothing in it for us.” There are few names given in the movie, providing more support that the film showcases natural male and female differences. The film seeks to engage audiences through the ideas that it films and human nature. Many of us have experienced rejection after reaching out to another person, either friends, family, or potential significant others.
Although Glazer’s response to rejection is overwhelming in the sense that Laura is set on fire, its message is nonetheless relatable to human experiences. His use of non-actors fully drives the message into the movie that this happens to people outside of the camera, and he does it with a sci fi, thriller, and experimental twist, forcing the audience to critically think and self reflect.
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