Under the skin/Under the skin/Nobody beat us/fry us and eat us/in fricassee.
We what the land folks loves to cook/Under the skin we off the hook
We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the skin
A review, of sorts, by Indy Datta.
Michael Faber’s debut novel, Under the Skin, starts by tricking the reader into believing that its protagonist, a young woman called Isserley, is given to cruising the eastern Scottish highlands in a decrepit Toyota picking up hitch hikers because she’s looking for solidly-built men to fuck. Then, layer by layer, Faber peels away the misdirections until the true nature of his story is revealed. Isserley is not picking men up for sex; she’s drugging them insensate with an array of hypodermic needles concealed in the Toyota’s passenger seat and triggered by indicator-stalk toggle, then driving her quarry to the remote farmstead where she lives, where they are spirited underground by her co-conspirators, evidently destined for a terrible fate. It eventually becomes clear that Isserley is not a young human woman at all but a furry-pelted quadruped alien who has been shaved and radically surgically mutilated on her home world so that she can pass as a sexually alluring female “vodsel” on ours, and lure male vodsels to the farm, where they will be caged, shaved, gelded, fatted and ultimately slaughtered for their meat, or “vodissin” – a priceless delicacy in a world that has only recently discovered the decadent pleasure of eating flesh.
Jonathan Glazer’s film of the same title (it would be stretching a point to call it an adaptation of Faber’s novel) has no interest in such misdirection. From its opening images, the otherworldly nature of its protagonist (here unnamed; portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) is obvious – in a sequence of almost pure visual abstraction that evokes not only Kubrick’s 2001 (an obvious reference point for Glazer’s sensuously gelid vision) but also the illusively formless white spaces created by installation artist James Turrell, we witness the various components of her disguise coming together –the snatching of the body we see her wearing for most of the rest of the film being just one part of it – the voice she must learn to use almost comes first (and in fact what we hear of that voice being tried on for size is tape of Johansson’s dialect coaching sessions for the film). Intercut with this, a motorcyclist speeds through a landscape initially rendered just as abstract by Glazer and his longtime DP, Daniel Landin.
The film abruptly abandons its initial visual register when Johansson’s character goes out to hunt as Isserley does, not in the picturesque Highlands but largely in a drably-rendered Glasgow, her interactions with men (some unstaged) captured in the hidden-camera style of undercover television documentaries. When she’s bagged one, she doesn’t stun him in the field the way Isserley does – she drives him back on a promise to “her place” – on the outside an unprepossessing, ostensibly abandoned and boarded up, ordinary house, but inside a return to the surreal visual realm that denotes her alien nature in the film’s aesthetic scheme. But in an inversion of the white space we saw her born in, this space is black, if equally formless. She strips and teases, leading the man further out on to a floor that supports her but swallows him (to the accompaniment of Mica Levy’s unsettling scoring) in an echo of the optical illusion at the heart of a different installation artwork, Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (and also of the duality of the surface of the lake that I wrote about in my review of Stranger by the Lake recently, another erotic/thanatic fantasia).
What subsequently happens to the unfortunate men is barely touched on by Glazer’s film, which has no evident interest in playing out the moral satire of Faber’s novel, which is multifaceted (if not always coherent), but which reserves the majority of its heat and fury to its attempt to shock the reader into acknowledging the absurdity and horror of the very concept of killing and eating sentient beings. And having jettisoned that narrative underpinning, Glazer also loses the plot elements that lead to a kind of moral awakening for Isserley in the novel – most significantly her involvement with a privileged campaigner against the practice of eating vodissin who visits from her home world.
There’s arguably method to that madness, though. One of the key conceits of the novel is that Isserley and her kind think of themselves as human – her interior diction is that of a human woman sent to an alien world to prey on subhuman aliens. One may speculate that Glazer, undoubtedly a visualist rather than a dramatist, ultimately shrank from the potential for banality in transliterating that voice directly to the screen, and instead sought to interpret Isserley’s alienness from within, to trace her journey away from her initial oblivious callousness (there’s one brutal sequence here, set on a beach, that some have found hard to watch) in a more subjective fashion.
Johansson’s contribution to the portrayal of that arc is at once compelling and impenetrable. When she picks up a man whose face is disfigured by extensive neurofibromata, we are left to wonder if there is any part of the apparent compassion she shows him that is real. As she regards herself in the mirror after taking his life, we may intuit that she is wondering the same thing, like any undercover cop in any movie who gets in too deep, or any method actor who stops being able to tell where they start and the character ends.
Under the Skin undoubtedly risks a certain inchoateness as a result of Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell’s attempt to distil the source text down to its essence (or more accurately, perhaps, an essence), but I can’t shake its insights into the power that might come with wearing another skin. There’s a vividness born of ostensibly unmediated reality (or the tension between that and the obvious artificiality inherent to the whole thing) to those early scenes in which, to all intents and purposes, the barely disguised movie star Scarlett Johansson drives around Glasgow in a Transit van trying to pick up men – and a fascination in the way in which the film posits Johansson’s unattainable beauty as a way of weaponising the male gaze and turning it back against men, as if with a parabolic mirror. I’m reminded that beauty’s neighbor, glamour, is also an archaic word for the kind of deceptive enchantment used in Scottish myth by selkies to disguise their non-human form from the men and women they must sexually ensnare to survive, and that reminds me that another key factor in Isserley’s moral awakening in Faber’s novel was her growing enchantment with the natural beauty of Scotland, and at this moment (full disclosure: it is 3 a.m.) that thought seems to connect everything together, and I know that even if Under the Skin is not a film I really understand right now, it’s one that could well still be giving up its secrets to me for years.