Under the Skin is a film best watched with absolutely no context beforehand. If you haven’t seen it, don’t look up anything about it, no trailers or film reviews beforehand. Seriously, just go watch it.
It is no coincidence that Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 science fiction film Under the Skin opens with the creation of an eye. As a frantic violin crescendo, abstract lights and spherical structures eventually collide to create a clear image of an unblinking iris.
In his renowned 1972 extended essay Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger writes about the nature of women’s place in society, stating a phrase critical in understanding the nature of the “gaze” in society, that being of: “men act and women appear.”
The quote establishes an unfair but absolutely true reality of the power dynamic between women and men when it comes to the nature of their existence in society. Berger then goes on to say:
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
To say the least, Glazer is fascinated with the concept of sight and “appearing” as he tells the story of Laura. She’s an alien dressed in a literal human skin suit who has been sent to Scotland to harvest human men for meat.
For each man she successful convinces to enter her van, she is able to lure into what is called the “womb space,” a black void where the men are slowly submerged into the floor.
While this setup seems to be a take on the rather cliched “femme fatale” of the Noir genre, the film becomes more of a quiet–albeit sometimes incredibly unnerving and occasionally horrifying–examination of human society through the eyes of an alien observer.
Otto Fenichel’s work “The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification” outlines the concept of the “sadistic gaze,” and the Freudian “scopophilic instinct.” Fenichel defines the different (paradoxical) expressions of the scopophilic instinct, from a desire to destroy the object observed, to the desire to empathize with it.
While the gaze is an objectifying–and therefore an inherently dehumanizing–force, it also in some cases has the ability for the viewer to form an empathetic connection with the viewer. Laura is an inhuman observer, who uses her “gaze” to literally consume the men she observes.
However, it becomes increasingly clear that the more Laura engages in the act of observing human life, the more she begins to empathize with her victims and begins to crave to be human. Glazer illustrates Laura’s progression of vulnerability to these men in the scenes in which she lures them into the womb-space.
As the film progresses, Laura must reduce her form to increasing stages of undress in order to fully submerge the men she captures. Glazer uses this visual mechanism to show the audience her increasing vulnerability to empathizing with the human race.
The moment by which Glazer cements Laura’s determination to become human is the moment in which she decides to free the man with neurofibromatosis before he can be sucked into the womb-space.
This is the first time Laura experiences a true empathetic connection, as the man she encounters is ostracized from human society due to his facial deformity in the same way that Laura feels as though she is isolated from her own society. She’s both human, due to the physical nature of her alienness, and inhuman, due to her curiosity for the human world and relative isolation from her home.
Laura is lonely in the same way that this unnamed man is.
Their connection is formed in Laura’s van when she allows the man to touch her face and neck. The man tells Laura that he does not have any friends and has never had a girlfriend. Unbeknownst to the man, his touch is the first skin-to-skin contact with another human being Laura has ever experienced.
The effects of this first interaction in the van become extremely clear when Laura takes the man to an abandoned building to lure him into the womb-space.
From the start, it becomes increasingly clear that this interaction will be like none other previously witnessed. Laura’s hypnotic gaze does not work in seducing the man.
Once in the womb-space, the man becomes increasingly aware of his surroundings, looking around the empty void and even engaging in conversation with Laura, repeating the word “dreaming” to her multiple times to which she reassures him: “yes we are.”
While Laura eventually regains her ability to draw the man into the floor of the womb-space, she must become completely naked to do so–something that has never happened up until this point.
After she does so, there is a sharp cut to an unidentifiable black form staring at Laura as Laura stares back at it. This is essentially the first glimpse the audience gets of Laura confronting her true, alien, form in her new body.
Here she is experiencing the conflict of her real human guilt of harvesting this man and her moral obligation, as represented by her bare alien form later revealed at the end of the film, to carry out her assigned purpose.
This same conflict is further illustrated as Glazer immediately cuts to Laura examining herself in the hallway mirror of the abandoned house she drew the man with neurofibromatosis into.
As Laura steps into the light to examine herself, she turns to see a fly desperately slamming its body against the pane of the window in order to surpass a boundary and escape into the free world. Glazer’s depiction of the fly’s futile pursuit of freedom mirrors the current state of Laura’s own psyche.
Glazer employed a similar tactic at the very beginning of the film with the sequence illustrating Laura’s conception. After undressing the corpse of the nameless woman, Laura examines an ant running across her fingers.
Here, the ant represents an organism that has a sole purpose of robotically fulfilling a task in order to better the lives of the colony as a whole.
This reflects Laura’s intentions on earth before she grows an empathetic connection with the humans she hunts: harvest for the greater good of her people.
Glazer narrowing in on the fly bouncing against the illuminated window represents the change in Laura’s outlook. Laura realizes her desire to escape her alien condition, therefore it should come to no surprise to the audience when the next shot is of Laura freeing the deformed man from the womb-space.
Following this, Laura, obviously shocked by her own actions, wanders further into the Scottish moors. She stops at a restaurant and orders a slice of cake, only being able to take one bite before regurgitating the food back onto her plate–a brutal physical reminder of her ultimate inhumanity.
Laura’s drift towards human impulse is finalized when she is staying at the house of a nameless man played by Michael Moreland.
Although throughout the film Laura is the subject to empathetic actions from complete strangers, Moreland’s character fully reveals human kindness to Laura by caring for her after seeing her obviously distraught on the bus.
After trying to care for her for several days Moreland eventually tries to have sex with Laura. Laura cooperates, however, the audience is shocked to realize Laura doesn’t even understand what sex is. Shaken, she pushes Moreland off of her and examines her genitals with a mirror.
This calls back to a concept Laura Mulvey discusses in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This essay, famous for coining the term “the male gaze,” discusses the place of women in old Hollywood movies. However, it also offers useful mechanics to discuss present-day depictions of women on the screen.
In her essay, Mulvey discusses Lacan’s mirror, which describes a child’s recognition of “its own ego” the first time they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Mulvey then asserts that the child is actually recognizing its “ego ideal,” a Freudian term describing the inner image of oneself that one wants to become.
Therefore, when Laura examines her genitals in the mirror, she is also recognizing her ego ideal–that of being a true human woman both inside and out. This scene marks a turning point in the narrative as it is this moment that Laura fully connects with her female form.
Glazer forces the realization upon the audience that Laura’s body was a weapon that she didn’t understand, and her realization concerning her own naïveté prompts her to want to understand.
By establishing Laura’s desire to understand what it is to be human while displaying a female form, Glazer is able to make an important cinematic turn to illustrate the reality of being a woman in human society.
Women are constantly caught in a paradoxical loop by being limited only to the power they hold over men as sexual entities, however, it is this status of being solely defined as sexual objects that oppresses them in the first place.
Once Laura develops a connection to her corporeal suit and attempts to live authentically as a woman, she becomes the subject to the eventually fatal control of men.
The tragedy of Under the Skin is that Laura’s inhumanity begins to peel away just in time for humanity to show its darkest side.
The commercial logger is Glazer’s example of the reality of the sadistic gaze, and the inevitability of the film’s bleak conclusion shows the powerlessness women have to even weaponize their own objectification.
Before the commercial logger attempts to rape Laura in the cabin she hides in after leaving Moreland’s house, he engages her in a relatively one-sided dialogue that is eerily similar to the ones Laura engaged in with the men she planned to harvest at the beginning of the film.
Now that Glazer shows the audience a man persistently asking a woman if she is familiar with the areas and if she is by herself, the tone of a scene the audience was initially familiar with from the beginning of the movie becomes immediately predatory in a way that it was not previously.
As soon as Laura fully realizes her humanity–thereby shedding the alien context by which she was also able to actively engage in the scopophilic instinct–the gaze is used to completely destroy her. The commercial logger attempts to rape Laura, in the process ripping her skin away in order to reveal her true, alien, form. Horrified, he sets her on fire. Roll credits.
The result of ending a movie like Under the Skin in this way is a complex but accurate portrayal about not only how the male gaze functions on the screen, but how the ability to objectify a person by simply looking at them plays out in the real world.
Yes, there is certainly something to be said about a film concerning the oppression of women being written and directed by a man, however, Glazer still navigates these concepts without laying too heavy a hand. Laura’s story is used to examine human environments through an alien lens, both for better and for worse.
Under the Skin is a puzzle of a film. Glazer displays a plethora of seemingly unanswerable questions concerning the nature of human existence for his audience to observe and attempt to answer themselves.
Glazer never comes to a full conclusion about many of the concepts he examines through the hour and fifty-minute run-time, and yet each concept is quietly explored in Laura’s story.