Right Where It Belongs — “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin cap

Imagine a wolf making a documentary about rabbits. The little, scurrying things will seem foreign and strange and uselessly busy. Every once in a while, the wolf gets peckish and nabs one of its film subjects for lunch. This is how Under the Skin introduces itself, as a monumental psychological horror movie that reflects the bleak, harsh landscapes of the Scottish cities and countryside in which it takes place.

The predator we follow, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a human-looking alien preying upon the damaged and homeless in Scotland. We’re told she’s an alien in a very esoteric way, but you’ll probably have it figured out by the time she’s seducing and digesting men.

Species this isn’t, however. There are no sex scenes in these seductions – plenty of equal-opportunity nudity, but no sex scenes. Instead, the seduction takes place in a sort of nothingness. It’s haunting and beautiful and visually very clever. And the digestion? It’s one of the great moments of horror filmmaking.

Under the Skin as if by Winslow Homer

The visuals here can utterly command your attention. The first half, as Johansson’s predator is on the hunt, is dominated by bright figures centered in dark surroundings. It’s a binary relationship – predator, prey, nothing more. When she’s on the prowl, Under the Skin reflects Scotland’s surging visual art movement – one which recycles liberally from other popular media. Our predator is selective – no one with a family or loved one will suffer, only loners no one will miss. As she trawls the streets of Edinburgh for potential victims, we spy on her conversations as if following Dominic Monaghan or Jeremy Wade seeking out interviews from aboriginal locals, or we watch from the back of her nondescript white van as if we’re the turret camera atop a jeep waiting for some stalking creature to give chase to the herd.

The second half of the film is altogether different, and concerns our predator’s growing empathy and identification with humans. She begins to learn the limits and capacities of her body. Images now brim at their edges with light and color, yet are anchored in the middle by dark, underlit figures. It redirects our focus toward the edges of the frame, toward the possibility of what’s just out of sight, the unknown still obscured. Where we once cut relatively quickly from one shot to the next – while Johansson’s alien was on the prowl – we now linger even after characters leave the shot so we can appreciate the sound of the wind or the complex geometry of crisscrossing branches. The wolf goes native, starts wanting to play with the rabbits.

Under the Skin lead

There’s also a spooky moment of inverting rape culture here. Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien gets very unnerving theme music early on, whenever she preys upon a man. When it hits, you straighten up, your fingers grip the armrests. The score by Mica Levi is superb – the best of the year so far. As the predator identifies more and more with humans, she adopts our rhythms, our weaknesses. These moments are without music, but that unnerving theme does return once more. It becomes someone else’s theme later on, when roles of predator and prey are reversed. It’s a shocking auditory moment, a double-take for the ears that sends a lump straight to your throat.

It’s vicious, but played as academic and unfeeling as her own earlier predations. It makes you realize you’ve spent ninety minutes trying to inhabit the altogether alien sociopathy of a sexual predator. It gives you a window into a psyche it ought to be utterly impossible to give us access to. In that single achievement, this may be one of the most challenging and important films I’ve seen in my life. It’s terrifying on a whole different scale. I can’t recall having seen a piece of art do what Under the Skin does.

Under the Skin choice

As an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, this is…altogether something else. I love the Faber novel, but gone are the corporate politics and alien foodie-isms. This is a sleeker beast with a different cross to bear, yet there’s a consciousness to the rhythm of each sequence, an offhand attitude to narrative, and a lingering in the most evocative moments of its cinematography that feels just like Faber’s guarded and relentless concision of speech.

It’s worth noting I saw Under the Skin with two friends – an actor who enjoys classic cinema and a filmmaker whose bread and butter are action-comedies. Two ends of the spectrum, and neither one enjoyed it much, criticizing its lack of storytelling fundamentals and the molasses-pace of its second half. I was taken aback by how much they didn’t like it, but their criticisms are accurate. As a cogent story, Under the Skin requires a lot of work on the part of the audience. It’s that work on our part, that Pavlovian training we have as viewers to try as hard as we can to identify with our protagonist, that gives the story’s later inversion its power, however.

Under the Skin is not just a weird film or an art horror piece, it’s downright, unabashed experimental filmmaking, and that’s divisive. It’s absolutely not for everyone. For the right someone, though, it’s as brutal a shock to the system as storytelling in any form can achieve.

Under the Skin dark center

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9 thoughts on “Right Where It Belongs — “Under the Skin””

  1. Hi, Michel Faber here. This is among the more interesting responses I’ve read so far to Glazer’s film of my novel. The film is indeed experimental and, quite apart from admiring its intrinsic merits, I’m relishing the fact that such a thing has infiltrated the marketplace and reached moviegoers who might not otherwise have got detoured so far outside their comfort zone. This is analogous to what I tried to do with the novel, which lulled readers into thinking it was a conventional horror-thriller before taking them on a very different ride altogether.

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    1. Thank you, Michel! It’s an honor that you took the time to respond to my review. I’m a fan of how you approach genre as a form to be molded into something new rather than strictly followed. I am curious – many authors dislike when so many liberties are taken in adapting their work. It sounds like you’re quite the opposite. Do you feel as if Glazer using the bones and tone of the novel to create the film’s own message is more important than holding to the narrative details that you established? What kind of input did you seek in that process of turning “Under the Skin” into something so different?

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      1. Hello Gabriel, thanks for your response.

        When readers read a novel – especially novels as visceral and visual as mine – a kind of movie plays in their heads, and the specifics of character and atmosphere (the book’s ‘casting’ and ‘cinematography’, if you like) are controlled by the author. So I would hope that anyone reading my novel would be pulled into my novel’s distinctive world rather than (mis)perceiving the book as a prose version of Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Jonathan Glazer’s film. In other words, the book remains what it is no matter what other versions are out there.

        My main concern about Glazer’s movie (and, before that, the BBC series of The Crimson Petal, and the stage adaptation of The Fahrenheit Twins) was that they should be strong works of art in themselves. A mediocre or weak adaptation that tried to be faithful would have upset me; a strong adaptation that took wild liberties made me very happy. I’ve been lucky so far. My only regret is that Jonathan Demme wasn’t able to get his version of The Courage Consort off the ground, as I think that might have made a lovely movie too, especially if a good ensemble cast had improvised with it.

        For me, the ideal book-into-film adaptation of all time was Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Ruthlessly unfaithful and yet true to the essence.

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    2. I appreciate the considered reply, thank you, and Apocalypse Now answers the next question I was going to ask. I’m always curious about editing, for both writers and filmmakers. It’s the stage at which the connective tissue of a piece comes together, often in ways you don’t initially expect.

      For someone who researches so painstakingly, do you find that the story is written in your notes before you even begin the narrative in earnest, or is it still coming together even as you edit? I’m also curious about the point of diminishing returns as a storyteller. Your language can be so precise – is there a perfect ideal of the story that you feel you achieve, a stopping point where you sit back and acknowledge the story’s right where it needs to be…or could you just go on editing forever?

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    3. Thank you again, Michel, for your well thought-out response. You’re very generous in taking the time to answer my questions. I’m curious what your specific reading of Glazer’s film is. What statements do you think it makes that your novel doesn’t? What are some of the other interesting responses to the film that you’ve enjoyed? Conversely, is there anything missing from the film that you’d like to have seen included, or that you feel may have made it stronger?

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  2. Because I write on computers, the distinction between notes, drafts and editing blurs. Also, different pieces are tackled in different ways: The Crimson Petal was rigorously planned while my forthcoming novel The Book Of Strange New Things was allowed to develop more instinctively/organically. Under The Skin was somewhere in between.

    As for the editing/finessing process, it could indeed go on forever. When I do public readings I often stub my toe on things in the prose that I wish I could change. Some authors hate being pushed by editors to (re-)engage with their text once they’ve “finished” it; they’ve lived with it too long already and are desperate to move on. I respect that. But in my case, I’m happy to keep working on it to make it better, as many drafts as it takes.

    It’s interesting to compare this with film-making, particularly the semi-improvised sort of film-making that Glazer employed in his movie of Under The Skin. If you’re filming scenes with people who are not actors & unaware that they’re being filmed (as happened in various scenes of Under The Skin) or if you’re filming in unrepeatable weather conditions (for instance the scene where Scarlett’s alien observes the people drowning in the wild surf, which according to Glazer was a totally flat, calm ocean on the days when they weren’t filming), you are at the mercy of the footage fate gives you. You can edit it obsessively in the editing suite, to finesse the rhythms and the juxtapositions, but the raw material is what it is. Whereas a novelist can change the raw material.

    One of the reasons Apocalypse Now is such a successful movie is that Coppola and his team were able to adjust, and make creative use of, the many things that didn’t go as planned during the shoot. So instead of clinging to their original vision of the movie and allowing it to be sunk by the disasters that eroded that vision, they changed the vision to incorporate the fiascos. Novelists are free to discard three months’ worth of writing and all they lose is time. Film makers don’t have that leeway; they need to work with what they manage to capture in a limited time frame.

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    1. I had no idea they hadn’t searched out such a rough stretch of sea just for its wildness. So much of the film really is capturing lightning in a bottle.

      How do you feel about the reader or viewer taking ownership of the work once it’s out of the author’s (or filmmaker’s) hands? My reading of the movie Under the Skin, for instance, relies on analyzing multiple scenes but really hinges on a sound cue. Especially under someone like Glazer, whose imagery and editing is exacting but who values improvisation, it could have been Johansson or himself or Mica Levi who saw that opportunity in the storytelling. They might all look at that moment as hammering home a different message; certainly critics have taken a variety of meanings from it.

      I’m sure you’ve had moments when critics and readers have derived meanings from your work that were different than intended. Your novels have many overarching themes, but they also have these very natural moments when we catch characters in a scene that might not be crucial to the narrative, but is absolutely crucial to inhabiting the world, in feeling and sensing the texture and pace of a place. Those are very accessible moments and can invite readers to start attaching their own, personal meanings to your work. Do you enjoy when readers extrapolate something different from what you intended? Is it frustrating that readers may miss some of your own meanings or are you proud that your work lends itself to such flexibility? Or a combination of both?

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      1. Hello again Gabriel.

        If you go to Amazon and browse through the readers’ responses to novels – any novels, whether simple or complex – you will soon be overwhelmed with evidence that most people are looking for very personal resonances in a book and will rate it solely according to whether it hits that spot. Often, what the author intends the book to be “about” is dismissed as irrelevant, or not even noticed.

        An analogous thing happens with music, where, for the average listener, a song is “good” if it reconnects them with an emotionally significant phase of their life – and even then, maybe only a few of the words of the lyric rather than the whole thing. Notoriously, zillions of people cherish The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ or Baby Bird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ as swooningly romantic anthems, playing them at their weddings as “our song”, when in fact the lyrics are, respectively, about creepy stalkery possessiveness and about the sexual exploitation of a model by her photographer

        As a novelist, I have to accept that some readers just won’t “get it”. I’ve put the book into their hands and it’s theirs to consume as they wish. Other readers will understand what I’m trying to achieve, and that’s gratifying. And other readers will see things in the work that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it but which, on reflection, I realise are valid. It’s just like a friend pointing out something about your character that you hadn’t noticed yourself.

        In any book, I hope to strike a balance between stuff that I weave very deliberately into it, and stuff that ends up in there for deep unconscious reasons. Readers and critics can sometimes alert me to things that I am helplessly or instinctively channeling, and I’m always intrigued when that happens.

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