Semiotics: "The study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication."
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Opinion: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is one of the best movies of the last decade.
It is also an "art film."
I know calling it an art film is a loaded and perhaps unhelpful term, largely because it starts a conversation where we first have to define "art" (which is a surefire way to disappear up your own butthole). But for our purposes, all it really means is it's the kind of film where you'll need to use all that abstract thinking stuff you learned back in high school English class. Things like themes, symbolism, and good ole' deductive reasoning. And while Under the Skin is rightfully lauded for its dense symbolism and rich thematic core, I would argue that it also does what all the best art films do, in that you are able to watch it without a lick of symbolic understanding and still enjoy it on a deeper visceral level.
No, really! Good art films tend to understand the inherent value of emotion, not necessarily with dramatic narrative, but by provoking the audience with visceral cinematic nerve. And Glazer's film certainly does that. It is at once hypnotic, vivid, beautiful, and at times downright terrifying. It will lull you into complacency before exposing you to stark, haunting imagery. It will throw you between quiet serene beauty and howling moments of fury. It surrounds you with an other-worldly sound design and score. It will even absorb you through its purposeful, transfixing use of nudity. The intent of all this is not mere cinematic allure for its own sake, but to get you to understand / interpret the deeper themes of the film.
But the simple truth is that general audiences aren't so keen on interpretation.
Which is totally okay. Really. This isn't one of those whiny, snobby rants that bemoans how the general audience engages narrative. The truth is there's no real reason general audiences should want to do it, nor be any good at it. As a collective, we've been weened on the "correctness" of traditional narrative and that's probably because traditional narratives are really engaging and pretty fucking awesome. Engrossing someone in the joys of dramatic storytelling is the fundamental art of human empathy. And heck, I would be the first to argue it is actually harder to make a solid, engrossing popular narrative than it is to make a semi-coherent art film (we get confused about that because it's seemingly harder to get people interested in funding an art film, much less watching one). But still, if you ignore most people's complete disinterest in interpretation, the bigger problem is the interested masses still tend to engage in meaning-making in, shall we say, precarious ways?
For instance, the number one thing you see in popular artistic interpretation is what I call "left-brain puzzle logic." You saw this hit the internet in a big way with shows like Lost, where it was assumed the narrative was a big elaborate web of hints and answers and allusions that simply had to be figured out as it were all just a puzzle - one that would of course speak to the who, the what, and the why of the actual plot itself. As an extension of this, you've seen crazy fan theories in general ("Why Ferris Beuller is like Fight Club!" or "These two random films take place in the same universe!" etc.). It's even happening right now with Westworld to the nth degree. To me, it all suggests the radical assumption that a story only need to make a very intricate kind of logical sense and not much else. Story is only something to be "deciphered."
Now, while a) there's no wrong way to enjoy a story I guess and b) there's nothing inherently wrong with puzzle-logic thinking (who doesn't love a good puzzle?) the reason most of these puzzle-logic approaches to cinema are pretty terrible is because it is largely ignorant of dramatic storytelling's very purpose. Stories aren't just cogent arguments. Stories are involving experiences designed to communicate something meaningful about life directly to us. Yes, there is a necessary logic to get there, as there is in anything, but dramatic answers are meant to be emotional, moving, cathartic, and meaningful. These are thematic answers, built off character and dramatization that is made clear. And when you look too much to puzzle logic for those answers, you'll find it often leads to astounding dramatic disappointment. This is evident not only in shows like Lost, but the first season of True Detective or even The Night Of, both of which spent time operating in theme-land and unfairly had a lot of puzzle logic placed on it by the internet's blind assumptions. And I would argue it's precisely why True Detective got crushed when it had an emotional and super-thematic ending instead of a "big reveal." As a culture, I worry puzzle thinking is the first kind of interpretation we rush to when it comes to interpreting symbolic art. When really, you should see people digging more into the old "high school English approach".
Perhaps just because I still love that crap? And to be more accurate, what we're talking about here is the field of semiotics, which is all about the system of going at interpretation in a fair, organized, and hopefully-more-accurate way. While this may seem like just another "puzzle" about pretty ideas vs. plot points, I would argue that it's not some superfluous thing. In truth, it's deeply important to the core thematic function of every single movie on the planet, especially ones with traditional narratives. Because movies are always inherently "saying something," right? They're always making arguments about how life works (whether we want them to or not) and so the more we understand the semiotic approach of basic dramatic structure and story events, the more we can understand what we are saying on the whole. It's precisely what allows us to transcend the semiotic nightmare of Transformers movies and figure out what are we actually saying here. It's what allows us to process the cognitive beauty of Inside Out. To read into the meaning of the slightest character behavior in Mad Max: Fury Road. And even sort out the errant gender problems in something like Jurassic World. All of these things have to do with our ability to understand the matter of "what it's saying" not just "what it's doing". And some movies really do put the "What it's saying" to the very forefront of their operation. Sometimes didactically so, sure, but many also with graceful, emotive abstraction.
Under the Skin is absolutely the latter.
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Now, I would argue that the most important thing about any semiotic breakdown is maintaining consistency of message by constantly focusing on the overall thesis. I talked about this at length the last time I did a semiotic breakdown of MULHOLLAND DR, but one of the chief dangers you see is people going down the spiral of fleeting tangential connections. They'll go "this symbolizes this and that connects to this other random thing!" and it doesn't matter to them if they have nothing to do with each other, it just has to make sense to them on a connection to connection level. It's always stuff like "This poster of Maui in the background is clearly there for deep thematic purposes. In Maui, the average rainfall is 400 inches. 400 grads is also how many units can fit in a circle. So this is clearly a film about circles (talks about circles for 20 minutes and how it not really relates to some character)." Clearly, this seems like an exaggeration, but you see traits of this in a lot of poor analysis.
Instead, each bit of symbolism has to fit clearly into the overall point of the story being told. You're making an argument for that point, remember. For that reason, the field of semiotics is so much about sequencing and building a "Proof" in a way, which may sound like a left-brain approach (and it certainly is), but really it's just about establishing thematic things that will be backed up more and more as we go through. You just need to have that context going into them to get to the thematic meaning. Again, what you're really building is an argument. You know, kind of like writing an argumentative essay or something?
So in that spirit, we have to get to the core idea, which means I will do a very important thing: spoil the ending of the movie right from the beginning: Under the Skin is the story of a seemingly-androgynous alien who comes to Earth to pose as woman and lure men in for her aliens' own nefarious means. But in doing so she discovers the ins and outs of what it means to be a woman in the modern day world. And thus her story morphs into a rich and tragic metaphor for the female experience.
To back up this point, I will go scene-by-scene through all the sequences in the film (comprising 10 sequences in all). Also, please know I have never read the book (which I'm is sure has different and probably "definitive" information), nor have I ever read any previous analysis of the work. So this is just a pure interpretation of the film as presented.
Also also, if I get any specific details slightly off it's just an error in copying back from notes.
Also also also, in talking about the semiotics of this film, I will likely be using some NSFW imagery for reference, and to also highlight its visually-striking nature. So fair warning!
We begin with a black screen. Nothingness.
We begin hearing audio, a strange repeated scratching, as if molecules, space and sound are forming.
A dot appears. A big bang amidst the darkness of the universe.
It quickly becomes a circle, light blue, a destination like Earth - all with the seeming sounds of a spaceship landing. It suddenly forms a donut, striking us as rather vaginal imagery.
A fact confirmed when the image turns slightly and we see a rod going into a svelte metallic donut... What could that ever symbolize?
(Sex, it symbolizes sex).
We have our moment of conception. And then that strange scratching sound slowly turns into a voice, belonging to none other than Scarlett Johansson, as she begins to learn language. She is at once a child and an alien learning to sublimate.
The circles on display overlap, our moment of birth as it turns into a black circle (note that it is made of the very the substance we later learn the aliens are made of) and the image turns quickly into Scarlett's new human eye.
She is born.
Title card: UNDER THE SKIN.
Luckily for us, this sequence is pretty damn clear and dripping with your obvious birth imagery, but in many ways it drops clues to everything you need to know: the alien nature of her creation. The very substance of her being. The quick sublimation to becoming human. Even more importantly, it communicates that this film will be operating in clear abstract thought and symbolic imagery.
We start the second sequence with a waterfall, a clear implication of "after birth" and quickly transition to a person riding a motorcycle.
This is a man. His helmet reads "Shark", which tells you a great deal. He is an ever-moving, relentless, machine. Only caring about his purpose and survival.
He parks the motorcycle on the side of the road and disappears into the darkness. Moments later, he returns with a slain woman over his shoulder, then brings her to a nondescript white van. He opens the door.
Suddenly, we are in an other-worldy space, an endless stretch of never-ending white not unlike that scene from The Matrix (albeit with negative-like glow to the people within it). Logically, we can infer that we are in some kind of sci-fi-ish negative space within the van, where the slain girl now lays against ground, being jostled.
She is be jostled by our just born / made Scarlett Johansson, who stands above her. For the obvious purposes of clarity I will keep referring to her as "Scarlett". Anywho, there she is, newborn and naked, and she begins taking the slain woman's clothes. She puts the clothes on herself. When she's finished, Scarlett stares looking down at the slain woman, who we now realize is actually not slain, perhaps just paralyzed. We watch as a single tear rolls down her cheek. There is an unmistakable air of tragedy in her expression, but Scarlett seems unfazed.
But then Scarlett reaches down and appears to touch her. She holds something in her hand; we seem to think it is sweat. But upon closer reveal, we see it is an ant.
Scarlett stares at the ant with curious intent and the meaning is clear to us: the woman is even less curious and consequential than the fiddling ant. They are not even equal in her alien eyes, for the woman's sadness and pain means nothing, while the little, writhing bug is far more intriguing at the moment.
But it is clear: we are nothing more than ants.
Now, this sequence sets up a great deal of information that will be important going forward. Scarlett will be posing as human. The man is her Guardian and keeper (pay attention to how the characterization of this relationship will change w/r/t the patriarchy / father owner / pimp and so forth). And note how all these things have clear, direct purpose in the story so far.
We look up and see that lights begin dispersing in the sky, implying more ships being sent about. She is not the only one. And again for clarity: they are aliens. And they are here on a covert mission.
Scarlett leaves an abandoned building, which we will see is her and the Guardian's base of operations. For the moment, they seem aligned in purpose and mission.
Scarlett gets in the van. She immediately drives to a mall. She buys new alluring, feminine clothes and red lipstick. She puts on her "uniform" and begins prowling for men. And seemingly every kind of man. This is her purpose.
She pulls up next to a young male by himself and asks for directions. She asks "Am I keeping you from something?" and smiles, flirting. The second he is out of sight, she goes straight faced again. She's on mission looking for someone she can pull in.
We hear more scratches (god this soundtrack is incredible).
She keeps flirting with men. Asking for help. All the men seem to love helping and being useful to this pretty woman. She asks one man if he has a family. But no, he works for himself. What may seem just a flirtatious question is more about whether he can be prowled easily and not raise suspicion. He is then in the car with her. All these scenes are littered with very normalized chit chat. It all feels like it was improvised, "man on the street" style (there is some belief it was).
Then the man is no longer in the car. We are not sure what happened to him. Scarlett finally finds another overly-flirtatious guy. He's more than willing. He has no girlfriend. He obviously wants her. She asks "Do you think I am pretty?" and she keeps complimenting him. These all seem to be learned behaviors for Scarlett, almost like programming.
She guides him into the abandoned house.
Suddenly we are in an all-black environment, clearly some more space-time wonkery. She keeps leading him forward. He takes off all of his clothes (meta comment: gasp! We see a wiener! In a movie!). Neither person seems to care about the black world surrounding them. He only looks at her. He is transfixed. Then, he starts sinking down beneath the blackened goo, completely submerging under it. As Scarlett, uncaring, walks back on top of it, leaving him below.
Now, there's a lot to unpack from this sequence, but it seems clear that a woman's purpose is to be shoved immediately into sexual womanhood for a larger purpose (hint: it's not ensnaring men, it's reproduction, but we'll get to why it's portrayed like this later). There is also an interesting conversation to be had about the predatory nature of Scarlett's behavior and what it means (we'll also get more into that later), but suffice to say, in terms of her experience, the expectation is clear: become a sexual being and obtain men. And we see the ways this takes form: she has been trained to put them at ease, to be obliging, to be alluring, and then to ensnare them. This is her purpose... But please note these critical questions going forward: who is she doing this mission for? Is it for herself, or someone else?
The other thing to discuss is a larger meta digression about nudity and its role in cinema. It may seem small, but something that caught me off guard with the popular conversation regarding Scarlett's nudity in the film is how she bravely did it without being some "perfectly fit" swimsuit model and how that was refreshing to see on screen. To which I had a number of varied responses, starting with the insanity that this is refreshing (in that someone jaw-dropping like Scarlett even counts in this regard). This speaks to the shallow state of Hollywood's crazy standards of beauty. I mean the fact that I actually understood what is meant by that statement says something, especially as it belies its own kind of shallowness. That this was a huge part of the conversation says a lot about what we will and won't talk about with sexuality in cinema. There's a whole rant to be had here with regards to nudity, film, and the gross nature of the industry, but since that feels like its own topic, I'll keep focused on the film as much as possible.
To that end, I would argue that there is very purposeful and stark use of nudity in Glazer's film, to a degree you don't get to see all that much. Because most of the time, cinema doesn't know how to handle nudity in all that an adult way. Sex comedies have mostly been turning it into infantile titillation, whereas "serious" art movies are mostly concerned with combatting that titillation factor / pornographic impulse and trying to make sexuality as un-sexual as possible. Shame is a wonderful, powerful film about sex addiction, but its predilection for combatting the impulse and its seriousness is highly reflective of the general attitude of art cinema. Sexuality becomes all about moralizing and making people feel gross for the pornographic impulse, even if there are a lot of valid problems with it. Nudity and sexuality never ever seems to cross the boundary of romance and intimacy (for something wonderful and celebratory of the messy qualities of sex, please see Shortbus). But the treatment of nudity in Under the Skin is far more fascinating because it seems to understand how to bridge both qualities into a larger meaning. Because it's very much to the story's purpose in that she be alien and transfixing, right? But she is at once deeply sexual and yet not at all. Two words most readily come to mind: alluring and unemotional. Which again, speaks to the way women are programed by society when it comes to what we want from their sexuality. And so it is no accident that Scarlett's first sexual experiences are perfect symbolic representations of this dynamic. But watch how it will later change...
4A. WATER / TIDES
After she caught the last guy, Scarlett is immediately out on the prowl again.
But this time she has travelled to the ocean, where she stares at the coastline and the rough water. She's at her first symbolic "edge of the Earth" or transition point in the film. This one hinting that she is already rubbing up against the limits of her purpose and search.
We then see a family dog that wades excitedly out into the rough waters. We see its family on the same beach. Presumably a husband. A wife. And a baby. And in front of Scarlett, we see another man coming out of the water in a wetsuit. She begins asking him questions. More flirting. More prowling... Only he seems more put off by her and confused.
Meanwhile, the wife has now realized that the dog went out into the rough water and chases after it, fearing for its safety. She is in full clothes, easily capable of drowning. Terrified for her safety, the husband - also in his street clothes - chases after his wife. Seeing what is happening, the man in the wetsuit goes after all of them, fearing for their safety. Scarlett just stands and watches, confused.
Even with the understated cinematography, the scene is incredibly tense. Scarlett watches as the man in the wetsuit only manages to save the husband. But the husband cannot leave his wife out there to die, so he goes back into the water again. The man in the wet suit collapses on the rocks, completely exhausted.
Scarlett then walks along the water, not caring that she gets wet. She picks up a rock and then walks back to the wetsuit man, still laying upon the ground. She violently knocks his head with the rock, then starts dragging him inch by inch against the rocky shore, with backbreaking painful labor involved...
... All as the baby screams in agony, sitting on the rocks nearby.
A baby whose mother and father have drowned in the water. A baby who is incapable of even language. Only knowing that it is alone now. And something is deeply, deeply wrong.
Scarlett doesn't even look at it as she passes....
The scene doesn't end there. As Scarlett drives the unconscious wetsuit guy back to HQ, her male Guardian is now back at the beach to take care of the man's tent for it is presumably evidence he can dispose of... And even he leaves the baby screaming on the rocky beach.
Okay... this is probably one of the the most haunting sequences I've ever seen.
The agony of it is practically burned into the soul. And the visceral nature of the scene as obvious as it is callous, but symbolically there's so much to unpack. It is first and foremost a clear reminder of where her concern for humanity is at right now. She obviously cares nothing for humans, no matter what shape or size. There is only her mission. Humans are still ants.
But everything else is as dense and heartbreaking a metaphor for humanity as you will see. For as much as we exhibit inhumanity to each other, human beings are often empathy machines, whose will and care for each other put us front and center to constant heartbreak, loss, and our own self-detriment. But it is automatic for us in some ways. We love animals, we love our partners, we love our family, and we'd run into the quicksand for them, just as they run into the raging riptides here. We create children out of this love, but we also orphan and doom them because of the cost of this love. Like the tides themselves, in the constant ebb and flow of creation and destruction, it's a dark, beautiful, and painful cycle.
And one that Scarlett seemingly has no interest in.
4B. WATER / FLOATING
The beach sequence is actually a lead up into a second part of the water sequence.
Scarlett is back in the van. A man tries to pick her up, but for some reason she doesn't select him. She then is walking. She finds another man walking who is perhaps is the right kind of target. But as she follows him, she encounters a group of women going out for a night on the town. She gets caught up with them, and seems incredibly confused and scared by them. What do they want from her? How does she feel with them? It all seems so against her programing. Their sense of fun, camaraderie, and togetherness is against everything she knows and is supposed to believe, so she is deeply confused.
They all go inside a club. Darude's "Sandstorm" is blasting because that's the best possible choice for funny. But Scarlett hangs back, still scared. The co-mingling nature of the environment feels strange to her. She doesn't know how to play this part. She seems to try and find determination to go back. She finds the nearest exit and goes back to a smaller part of the bar. Suddenly, a guy comes out and grabs her. He tells her they're both alone. She is nervous at first, not in control, but upon understanding what is happening, she suddenly shifts back to mission mode. This is what she is supposed to be doing. They dance. The guy is pretty ridiculous and goofy, but she obliges.
Suddenly they are dancing back at her HQ in the mysterious all black sludge room. Again, the guy is goofy and awkward, but the dancing is now set with this uncanny and strange soundscape. For an over-used phrase, this moment actually feels "Lynchian." He follows Scarlett. She walks backward with more seduction. We then see our second boner in the movie. He goes under the sludge. Yet his eyes never leave her.
But unlike before, now we are under the sludge with him...
He seems to be floating in what is somewhat opague, dark-blue-ish goo. He watches as Scarlett leaves above him. Despite being underwater, he seems to be breathing in suspended animation. He tries to orientate himself, but he is confused, naked, almost seeming drugged. His body can only move a little bit, and very slowly through the sludge.
He looks across and can now see a man. It is the previous man Scarlett entrapped. He is clearly dying in the sludge, malnourished to the point of nearly being vaporized. His skin seems loose. The image is disgusting but truly haunting. You can't take your eyes off him. The new man keeps trying to talk, but only muffled silence emerges. He can barely even blink. He doesn't understand what he is seeing. He is desperate. So he reaches out to try and touch the wilting man.
Suddenly, the wilting man's insides literally implode with a sickening pop (just ingenious sound design once again. I can't even accurately describe the sound it made other than to say it was unearthly). The wilting man is now nothing but a fold of floating skin. It's disgusting at first, but as it drifts, it soon becomes weirdly beautiful and peaceful.
Then a moment of abstraction, we see a shoot of red substance flowing toward a long, red rectangle. It implies a kind of harvesting of human insides for seemingly critical reasons. More images flash. Fuel. Body creation. More birth and conception. Circles of light. Shining specs. The black sludge. We are secretly getting all the information we need to seemingly understand how the aliens make their sludge, but also their new selves and perpetuate the organic cycle. They are using the skins to hide under, and using the body matter to create their life force.
Okay... So these two sequences really allow us to dig into the predatory nature of what is happening here and why: propagation of their species.
On one level this is just one of those the cool sci-fi tropes about aliens using our bodies and stealing our skin, but in this movie? You better believe there's a bigger metaphor. Now, if one were to view certain details with a kind of prejudice, you could argue this is showing how women are predatory and trapping men and sucking out their insides or some shit. Orrrr, if you want to look at it with more depth, you'll see two critical points. The first is that she has no malice in what she does. She is doing a job she has been trained to do and hasn't even learned to emote. And as we will soon see more and more, this is something that she is being forced to do. This is her role. And second, what the film will essentially start arguing (it's only hinting at it here) is that this hyper violent / competitive reproduction cycle is not unlike the tide sequence, just the more cynical and dark side of the coin. The propagation of species / sex / all that stuff is part of an insidious dynamic, a survival of the fittest to our own destructive ends. Propagation to the point of implosion.
And it is very much taking aim at the way our society does the same.
Scarlett is back in the van.
On her travels, this time she meets a man who hands her a rose. She looks down and sees blood, which deeply confuses her, but we think she has pricked her hand on a thorn. This detail may seem extraneous, but it's important for a few reasons. The first is good old symbolism. Because a woman pricking her finger on a spinning wheel is only one of the most famous metaphors / symbols of all time, as seen in the stories of Briar Rose and Sleeping Beauty. And the entire thing is an exact metaphor for puberty. Note how much of the story is about a father trying to prevent his daughter from growing up and getting her "first blood". So they burn all the spinning wheels in the kingdom (because that'll work). The lesson is always clear, you can't prevent this. The lessons about what to do once it happens are less clear, however, as many think it's best to lock your daughter away for 100 years until the right Prince Charming comes along and... well we could talk about the gender tropes of these stories for hours.
Now, the second interesting bit is that we get an immediate reversal of this. It's not her blood, it's the man's blood who held the flowers (we'll get to what her blood is later). But this notion that humans can bleed is incredibly important. She knew this, but the idea that it comes with someone handing her a pretty flower. The idea that humans bleed, much like the metaphor at the heart of Briar Rose, is about the undeniable fact that human beings are human beings. They have flesh and they bleed and give and care. So it's yet another message of the film's statement: to care is to be willing to wound oneself. She has been trying not to see humans, but she can't help but start to be aware of what makes them human.
So Scarlett sits in her car and hears about a family all missing / presumed dead (this is the one from the tides section) and we're not sure if she's listening. Then she's at a filling station restaurant, but something has changed in her demeanor.
Now she is watching women (she has only watched men prior to this). She watches groups of them in all shapes and sizes and ages. She is suddenly aware of things outside her purpose. Outside her mission, observing all the people who are like her. It is its own kind of small awakening. She is aware.
Then she's hearing another guy's voice. He's telling her she's amazing. He goes on about her eyes and hair. But she's not listening. She's too busy hearing other people's voices. Women's voices. Not even seeing him. But then, she drifts back. We then see that she is nonchalantly taking him back to the house, still going through the motions of what she feels she has to do.
As they go into the house, the guy seems nervous for a change. He's not transfixed. The house seems creepy. Scarlett seems like she doesn't care. She just continues. He is scared, but follows her inside.
Having presumably done her job, Scarlett is now applying lipstick. But as she steps out, she is suddenly stopped by The Guardian / male figure. He watches her. He circles her. Examining, as if he knows something's wrong. As if he can see she's not committed to her purpose. That she's straying. Scarlett just keeps looking down. He gets close behind her. He is malevolent and clearly in charge of her. He just keeps staring daggers at her as she does not budge. But she dares not even disrupt him. Her eyes seem ever so slightly red, watery... Human. He stares at them. We are now staring at her black pupil. And though we barely understand, it almost seems like it is leaking. He takes one last look then walks off into the darkness... The threat has been made.
Okay, so now we've made it clear that this Guardian dude is absolutely the patriarchy. Seriously his entire role is about making her to exhibit sexuality, be subservient to him, and serve their purpose toward procreation (sound familiar?). The fact that she's not having sex with these human men, but imploding them? Just a way of making the madonna / whore dynamic literal. Again, we begin to understand how the alien's method of procreation is a perfect metaphor for the self-destructive male view of procreation, one that both cannibalizes others and themselves. And to anyone who thinks I'm stretching this patriarchy angle and what's happening here...
The Guardian's credit in the film? "The Bad Man."
Having made it through the standoff with the Guardian, Scarlett goes out again, seemingly convinced she must stick to her purpose.
This time she's walking down the street, she trips and falls to the ground. She stays there, confused by her suddenly accident, her own basic flailing humanity that seems so foreign to her. Men reach down to help her up, but she remains confused and disoriented. The world is blurry now. Even more so, she is now aware of human kindness in this small, basic way. She watches women again. A woman on her cellphone. Women walking together. Women. Old and young alike. Women with kids. Women working. A women homeless. She sees a man give her a dollar.
Back to a close up of her eye. It is wide, but fluttering. She is taking in so much. The deep realization starts to come in as we shadow only on the bottom half of her. As if she is trying to keep pushing something down in her. But then it takes over her wholly. She sees more women laughing. People together. Taking pictures. Kind men, so different from the ones out on the prowl. Humanity all starts overlapping in constant imagery. She's seeing it.
And she's seeing herself in it.
Now she's driving. Her eyes water for the first time. She looks up and sees a man by himself. But then suddenly a man knocks on her window. And suddenly another man rushes the van, followed by a whole gang of them. They are trying to get in. She barely understands what is happening but senses the idea of danger here for the first time. It is hard because she has been programmed not to value her own life. In the confusion, she drives away unsure about her own protective instincts that are kicking in. She's unsure by this very idea of self-perception.
She drives around in circles on rotary, a clear metaphor for the nature of how she feels about her "search" and "purpose" now. She then is parked and waits for a man to pass by. Shaken, she goes back to what she knows. With her window down, she calls out to a passing man. Starts playing the the old "I'm lost" trick and wants help. They man answers in muffled tones and hides beneath his hood. He's trying to stay hidden. He seems distrustful. She asks him into the car...
The man gets inside and we now see his face. The actor who plays this man is Adam Pearson. He suffers from a disease called neurofibromatosis which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow from his nerves, all just under his skin. He needs frequent surgeries to control it, but it still leaves his face lumpy and scarred. His appearance is jarring at first, but the camera starts to let you in, and you can see him. Soon, it starts to seem so normal.
She does not seem to be phased or thrown off by his appearance either, which only seems to faze him more. Logically, as an alien, she has no concerns for the aesthetics of human beauty. But she can nevertheless sense what he is struggling with. She genuinely compliments his hands. It's the same flirting situation as before, but she seems to be coming from a place of kindness now that she can see the person underneath. A person who has had what she can sense have been tough experiences. There is such aching humanity there and she tries to make him comfortable. There's even this heartbreaking moment of realizing that's he's never really touched someone. And yet her flirtation is not quite working. She lets him touch her face. She keeps flirting. She starts to pull him in. But this isn't a random tryst. It's something else. This experience is completely alien to him. He doesn't know how to process all this. He pinches his hands. "Am I dreaming??" He asks. "Are they really soft?" He pinches, as if trying to make his hands like the rest of him. Soon you don't see scars or anything, just this beautiful, wounded human.
She takes him into the abandoned house. They move forward. Their words are terse. Him: "Cold." Her: "I wont let that stop us." We see a dark black figure in the sludge (this dark black sludge reflection is a very important indicator as to what happens later). The man walks forward, but he keeps looking back to the exit. Her: "No, to me." Him: "Dreaming." Her: "Yes." It makes him more serene. All his clothes are on the ground. He starts to slide into sludge, she backs away now fully naked. Both entranced and reflective with the ground.
We see a flash of the sludge figure yet again. Skeletal. Alien. Black. It cross-fades with her... Is it her? She leaves the room and goes to exit the front door. She stops in front of a mirror to look at herself. She's seeing beneath her human skin to her actual humanity. Seeing who she is and how she is like them, all in this quite literal moment of reflection.... A fly buzzes around... Are humans still insects?
Suddenly, the door opens and she lets the man out, now naked and confused, but understanding he must escape. Meanwhile, she runs and drives off, realizing what she has done. The man is left to fend for himself, but she did what she could to save him.
Suddenly, we are with the Guardian, who drives as fast as he can.
We are back with the naked man, who walks through an empty field, desperate, trying to return home. Scarlett keeps driving in the van. Then we are with the Guardian who stops in front of a seemingly random home. He smashes a car window. He then walks to the backyard where he finds the naked man trying to get to his house. The Guardian apprehends him and stuffs him in the trunk. A woman sees it from across the way. The Guardian doesn't care... He has what he needs.
Now, this scene is pretty obvious in that we are seeing the very turning point in her empathy. She's really gotten to see what it is to be human. And not just see it reflected in herself, but to do something. And so she makes her first truly human choice:
She has run into the riptide.
We see the winds howl in circles. We see a mist on the lake and snowy mountains. We have run off into the wilderness. We have seen the change. The rupture. The elements and earth clashing together.
Scarlett drives through it vacantly, eyes watering, barely understanding her emotions that made her act this way. Fearing the consequences, she is just driving. As far as she can. Then, she seems to run out of gas. She gets out.
She steps into what seems to be the thickest fog imaginable. She walks into it with seeming determination.
But then she stands still, literally lost in a fog. She stands there looking about in this beautiful, gorgeous moment.
For the first time she is not on the prowl, nor studying anyone... She is just looking through the fog. Here at this great transitive, scary, unknowable moment. Then off in the distance, she hears a bird. There's life out there. Creatures. Beings. Not insects. And maybe... a chance at freedom and peace.
Then, she walks out of the fog.
8. PLAYING HOUSE
The Guardian is back at the house. He too stares in the mirror, but unlike Scarlett, he doesn't seem to give a fuck about anything he sees. There's no humanity, just his purpose.
Meanwhile, Scarlett is now sitting in a restaurant. She looks off at mountains in the background. Looking at life. In front of her there is a piece of chocolate cake. She looks around and sees other people enjoy food. She looks back at her cake, unsure. She picks up the fork and slowly inches it to her mouth, shaky. She puts it in her mouth then lets it sit there. She then tries to swallow, but chokes. She cannot enjoy it or seemingly swallow it (for logistical alien reasons we will get into later).
Next, she walks down a small town road, and eventually she passes a man. Now this man is listed in the credits as "The Quiet Man," and that has its own meanings we will get to in a second, but for more immediate, descriptive purposes I'll call him "The Caretaker."
This man calls out to her, seemingly worried. She turns, then waits at a bus stop. He watches her. A mixture of concern and curiosity. Later on the bus, a different man talks her. Telling her she needs a jacket. She is clearly out of sorts and unsure. But the Caretaker from before watches on and then asks if she is okay. He genuinely seems concerned, fearing she is in trouble. He asks her if she needs help. She can barely answer, unsure what to do. So he stares back, with wide and seemingly kind eyes.
We cut forward and he is taking her to a shop to buys groceries. There is particular focus on the eggs he buys (birth / death / sustenance symbols if there ever was one). He then takes her to his home. He shows her all the things in the kitchen and apartment that she may need and tries to make her comfortable. She doesn't say anything and he doesn't seem to care, so long that she is feeling safe and taken care of (there is a funny meta element to this with the concept of "little mermaid-ing" guys, popularized in an episode of Garfunkle & Oats, in which women will purposefully stay silent as guys go on and on and on and even not care if a girl talks. In fact, he'll just fall more in love with her).
Then they begin to... Live, in a way. He prepares her food that she can't "eat". And she has no idea what to do with television. She just sits there, taking in some Vaudevillian comedy. He puts on music. She taps her hand, but still doesn't know what to do with any of this domestication. Not only has she only been programed to flirt and ensnare, but she gets nothing from this. He then gives her her own room and leaves her with a heater and a cup of tea. But again, she doesn't know what to do with this new space quite yet.
Now, a lot of the details in this sequence will matter more in the next sequence, but for now the term "Playing House" is the best way to describe what is really happening here. The man seems genuinely kind, but also sad and lonely. There are a million more things he could probably do that are more responsible (considering she's basically mute, and he thinks she is in grave trouble), but the truth is there is clearly a part of him that wants her around. He wants company. He wants to take care of her. He wants her to know she can depend on him. Which is also a kind of control, even if the Caretaker seems well-intentioned. But we'll get to that next.
9. BODY / INTIMACY
Now, in her room, Scarlett has the first space that is all her own. This is remarkable to her. She starts looking in a mirror, looking at her naked body for first time as her own body. She starts moving her knees and wiggling her toes. She plays with her fingers. Looks at her neck, ribs, and back. She looks at the sexual parts of herself, the things she's only known to use for allure. But having abandoned the mission, what are these parts if they are just for herself?
Meanwhile, the Guardian has now met up with other Guardians (they are a kewl motorcycle gang apparently). They all seem to silently know their new purpose and go off on the hunt for their rogue alien Scarlett. They go in different directions.
Back with Scarlett, she now walks along the town with her Caretaker. He does very traditional chivalrous things like picks her up and help her over a deep puddle. And if that wasn't enough, they then walk toward a literal castle (meta note: this symbolism is all on-the-nose as hell, but it speaks to either 1) how much direct symbolism is all about smooth craft that doesn't make it seem overt. Or 2) something that goes over people's heads no matter what). It's all pretty unspoken and psychological, but at this point, they are making it clear that this guy could be on the verge of having to register on Hello M'lady. It's obviously not that extreme, but he keeps taking her silently along with him and this entire sequence is about showing a different shade of patriarchy than the Guardian. It's a different kind of control, or at least a trap, even if made through implied generosity. But at this point, he is logically necessary to her (or story-wise, her symbolic growth). But again I'm not trying to demonize it; I just want to make clear the quiet way he is taking advantage of her too. All the answers to which are in his silence.
But she is on a very different journey and has a very different understanding than our 2000 foot view with a modern sensibility. She is very much still in the process of discovery. There is something about this all that is... Safer to her. And thus necessary. But also something aspirational.
In the bedroom, they sit together. She closes her eyes. There is a part of her discovery of selfhood that is interested in copying, experimenting, something that longs for a kiss. She can feel her own skin. She touches his neck. She likes this. He touches her face, in return. For whatever it is worth, there's real tenderness here.
She lays back and he undresses her. They kiss. He takes off her underwear. She is smiling. This seems to be the first time she has really smiled when it was not part of the game. Or perhaps she doesn't even know. But at least there seems to be trust built up. They kiss. She is comfortable with this. But then it progresses... soon they are on the edge of sex, and when he inserts into her, she feels something painful and stops him quickly. She runs to edge of bed and grabs a light and inspects her vagina. He seems confused, but worried. She then tosses the lamp away.
She stares out the window.
She can never do this. She can never have this.
She runs away into the woods
Now. This sequence is important for lots of reasons. There is the basic sci-fi logistical reason she can't have sex and let anyone inside, which we will learn more about in a bit. But also this symbolically speaks innately to the problems of achieving intimacy and sexuality . Her first foray into sexuality is so many things. There's a mix of trust, worry, doubt, discovery, confusion, genuine want, genuine need, but also the immediate pain of letting someone inside and the consequences of doing so. And this isn't just a convenient example of breaking the hymen / losing one's virginity; this is about puncturing self-hood and one's core essence. It's about sex, trust, and letting people inside us. It's about people getting close to our rawest humanity and being able to hurt us. It even plays right into the birth / sex / death motifs that have been rampant throughout this entire film. And socially, the sequence says a lot about the roles and expectations of sex in the "marriage environment" so to speak. She cannot be trapped in this situation too. She cannot simply give herself over to this. She must leave... And it's remarkable the way the scene can really just be about these two characters, but encompass so, so much more.
10. IN THE FOREST, DARK AND DEEP...
And now, our final sequence. Scarlett runs into the woods, hiking through trees. She is far from the city, now in the deepest, most earthly, most animalistic place that exists.
As she hikes she suddenly encounters a man in a yellow jacket. He's seemingly official looking and warns her of danger (at first I thought he was a fire-fighter, but we seem to learn later he is actually a logger... The arc of this understanding is telling). The Logger asks if she's on her own and lost. Scarlett wants to avoid his questions. He starts putting hands in pockets and there seems a weird, smarmy sense about him. She senses it too.
We suddenly cut back to the Guardians chasing through the streets on their motorcycles. They are after her. And they will not stop until they have her back in control.
Back with Scarlett, she is walking on her own again. She comes finds a little shelter for hikers. It is empty. She sits on her dirty knees. She finally has a place to sleep and be alone. Truly alone. Also, note that we have not seen her sleep yet in the film. She is finally letting her guard down, away from the world.
We hear the wind howl. The droning sounds grows louder... A storm seemingly coming.
There's a super imposing of her image in the windy trees. She suddenly wakes to find a man is touching her. It is the Logger from before. She quickly struggles against him. She gets free and makes a break for it.
She runs into the woods. Unsure of where she is heading, fearing for her life. She manages to hide and soon finds the Logger's truck. As she tries to get away, she hits the horn accidentally. He then sees her and gives chase. She runs again. But the Logger gets ahold of her. There's a long, horrific struggle. Her eyes water. He tears at her clothes. Ripping them off... He stays straight-faced, determined. It all just seems like business to him.
But suddenly he stares at his hands... wide-eyed and terrified. He looks down and we see black goop pour out of her back. He pulls back, realizing she's not human (or to play with the metaphor, he sees that she has "something underneath" the exterior / skin he so badly wants). He runs away in terror... She walks off, clearly hurt and her much-needed skin now damaged beyond repair. She sits to herself and then...
... She pulls the skin off her head.
For the first time, we see her alien body underneath (and for many who were confused as to what was happening this entire time, you get your answer as to why she was so afraid to have things enter / puncture / hurt her). We see her smooth, bald, androgynous yet feminine, black goop body. The same black goop that they have been making from the harvesting. This is their life force. Their matter. Their being. And so our alien just stares at her human female face, which is still crying and blinking back at her. They look at each other. It seems like they have a million questions and apologies for each other: why did this happen? Why did they do this to us? Why is their female life like this? Why do they want this from us?
The scene is like so many others in the film... Just haunting.
And it is suddenly undercut when something approaches behind her. It is the Logger. He quickly pours gasoline on her and lights the ground on fire. To him, this "alien," this being, this thing that women have underneath. It cannot be allowed to exist. It must be killed with fire. She tries to run, but she starts burning up. She runs into a snowy field collapsing to the ground. The black goo of her being is on fire, melting away and...
... She dies.
We suddenly cut back to the Guardian, standing on a mountain top looking in every direction. He cannot see her.
For right now her body is being roasted down to a puddle. Her entire existence, gone in an instant. A thing bit of black smoke rises into the air, breaking apart into invisible wisps, until there is nothing left but sky.
Cut to black.
* * *
It is safe to say that the film's final sequence is soul crushing.
But it is also something that allows the entire logic, message, and arc of the film to finally click. It's not just the concrete reveal that she's an alien. It's more the completion of her story: through the discovery of empathy and her right to self-hood, she tried to overcome her horrible gender constructs and expectations. But she was punished dearly for doing so. In some broad ways, it's nothing more than your straight "allegory of the den" metaphor where we abandon the bliss of ignorance and more knowledge brings more sorrow. But her entire arc more directly sums up the arc of the eternal female struggle in a cruel and unjust patriarchy.
This should be clear for a film that ends with the alien looking down at her female face with deep sadness, before they are both burned. But I've seen a number of weird arguments around the gender issues in Under the Skin. Some worried that it argued women are evil (because of the way she ensnared men). Just as some folks didn't understand why she left the nice "quiet caretaker man" and how that was mean of her (which absolutely gets into that ugly area of implying going off into the middle of the woods alone is the reason she got attacked... Eek). Meanwhile, some got too specific in the other direction and argued Under the Skin is abject story of sex slavery. Which isn't inherently wrong (it actually speaks to a lot of the issues the film brings up), it's just the film is clearly going after an even bigger parallel. For as the credits roll, we get one crucial detail in Scarlett's billing:
Yes, this film is trying to take on the sum total of the feminine struggle.
Now, if you want to go all literalist you could argue "Why have aliens at all? Just tell the story of a woman's life." But the alien metaphor allows them to get at the human constructs and symbolism involved in a much clearer way that actually allows them to say interesting things about gender in the process.
To wit, let's start from the beginning of her journey. Now, we sort of don't know if there is a gender construct within the alien race as there's just not enough information. The black goo seemingly makes them amorphous organisms, but that vague quality is actually key to the metaphor. Because these aliens are inherently more androgynous, all the same black goo that can be shaped in any way seemingly. While we see her have a feminine shape at the end, we don't know if that was just the contouring, so there is nothing that inherently implies she is "female". With the implied androgyny, she assumes the identity of a woman simply because she is supposed to. That is how she is merely "born." And this is only her "skin." In terms of a pure biological statement, this gets at the notion that gender is a social construct.
Now, I don't want to get into whole argument about that (if unfamiliar, you can read here), but the most important thing to at least understand here is there is so damn much about gender roles that is put onto us by society. And in the beginning we can truly see how she is programmed with only enough knowledge of human beings to exploit them for her own people's reproductive means. She is confined to her purpose. Be sexual. Be sexless. Procreate for us. It is the patriarchal subjugation of women through and through.
But as we watch the very carnage that ensues from this, we see that the film is deftly examining the deepest contradiction at the heart of the patriarchy. In that the manner in which we try to control women is the manner in which we all effectively cannibalize each other, men and woman alike. In the name of tribalism, our little motorcycle cliques, we propagate the cycle of violence and control. As extensions of this, we see caretakers domesticate. And the Logger cutting down the life force from the Earth. And it is all in denial of the thing we have underneath. But no, the thing we have underneath is the thing that cannot be allowed, for it belies want and control. Thus they scream a message to the world:
You are only your skin. Not what is under it.
But then the Female comes to understand that her purpose in this system is wrong. That it hurts people. That it makes her inhuman. That it doesn't make her happy. That it doesn't even have anything to do with "her" and who she is. She sees that she can be a part of the world. That she can have empathy. That she can be like all humans and run into the proverbial riptide. And so she tries to break out of that purpose, to cast her own path, but she just ends up facing so many more aspects of the feminine struggle. From the right to her own body, to the silent, chivalrous roles we have to play, to the obligation and taking of your sexuality. And even though her quest of self-acutualization is born from empathy for others and herself, she suffers and then pays dearly for it. Not because she is wrong, but because of the patriarchy screaming out once again:
You are only your skin. Not what is under it.
But this of course belies the deeper truth. As all of us will one day get rendered back to the primordial ooze of organic life, and the the bodies we inhabit fade, we will be left with one simple realization: that all the attention we paid to our genders and exteriors, all the fighting, all the deeply held beliefs... were all for naught. The truth is...
We are only what is Under Our Skin.