On Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin brought to mind the infinitely cheesier 1995 film Species. Both share a similar premise: an alien is loose in the world in the guise of a human seductress, and male specimens of our own species had best watch out. Species is a fairly conventional entry in the horror film genre, Under the Skin aims for a more muted Grauen.

Laura, the alien in human form, drives a van (no horror there) through numerous environs evocative of different aspects of Scotland: elegant commercial districts, gritty urban streets, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle, and of course the Highlands.The film is beautifully shot, and savors the effect of each of the places it visits. There is a subtle exploration of spectatorship and the way that nature is experienced here. In one scene Laura is standing on a stormy beach at the foot of some cliffs attempting to lure in another victim. Nearby a woman has gone swimming into the surf to rescue her dog, only to be followed by her husband; all of them are ultimately doomed, and their baby is left abandoned on the shore. Together with Laura, we regard the destruction of the family from a distance, so that the catastrophe taking place at the level of the individuals seems very far away as they are destroyed at the foot of the cliffs.

Later in the film, after Laura has begun to experience something of moral agony over her actions, she is wandering in a forest trying to come to terms with her own increasing humanness. She runs into a logger there who asks if she’s out for a ramble, and stutters on about the forest as a space of solitary contemplation. There’s something more going on here other than the ominousness of a woman alone running into a strange man in a forest, although the man will later attack her. The film touches here on the commonplace of landscapes as being devoid of humans. That is, the interruption of the forest solitude (yes, Tieck’s Waldeinsamkeit), the experience the man blubbers about, is precisely what makes the scene alarming.

The film is all about gender and performance, and in that sense it is a very self-conscious film. Sady Doyle points out in her essay “Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism” that in the scenes where Laura finally does her victims in (if they are “done in” in any conventional sense), the film reverses the convention of directing the gaze away from the male body and making the female the object of visual consumption. That is to say, we see some erect male appendages. I might add that this film deserves lots of credit for casting someone who actually has neurofibromatosis in the role of the character with the condition, as opposed to slapping prosthetics on an actor and having him represent somebody else’s experience of social marginalization. In the end, we get to see Laura stripping off her own skin, and contemplating the face that she has been wearing.

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The climax of Species offers us a showdown between final girl and monster. In Under the Skin Laura transitions from being the monster to someone hunted in the forest by a rapist. Without saying too much (my love of spoilers notwithstanding), the more one considers the roles of each character in the resolution, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes.

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