Under The Skin: Watching Human Behaviour With 2020 Vision
Watching Under The Skin in 2020 has had an entirely different effect on me than it did the first time I saw it. Scarlett Johansson is one of the greatest actresses of all time. She has never been more beautiful or sexy than she is here in my eyes, which is precisely what we needed her to be for the role — my views on her character have not changed; my thoughts on humanity have.
Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel follows The Woman, an alien sent to Earth to harvest humans, I assume because they are a delicacy on her planet. From this single concept, there are several aspects to explore: human behaviour, loneliness and what it is to be a woman.
The Absurdity and Beauty of Human Behaviour
Having lived for the majority of the year in lockdown here in Wales, and that I rarely went out on the town or to big gatherings before COVID-19 struck, I watched the film just as The Woman (Johansson) watched the people moving around her, trying to figure out what humans are all about. It’s been months since fans were allowed to football matches so they can shout at people running around on a field. Months since shopping centres were crammed with people buying stuff they don’t really need and months since clubs and gig venues squeezed as many sweaty bodies in as possible into their noisy, hot, dark and disorientating rooms. Why do humans do this to themselves? It has always been something that has baffled me as a reasonably unsociable creature — why do people choose to congregate in tiny, busy places with lots of other people all doing exactly the same thing? Well, because humans are, for the most part, social animals and enjoy experiencing things together.
But for me, watching the film with alien eyes made my stomach turn. It suddenly dawned on me; I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t like what humanity has become.
The story begins with a biker (road racer Jeremy McWilliams), an alien in the guise of a man riding to an isolated place where he collects a woman’s body from long grass by the water. The Woman sits in a white transit van, in which The Biker places the body. She removes the clothing from the body and puts it on herself. The body is never explained, though I would suspect that she was an alien too — they looked similar, were the same shape and size — she was likely the previous human harvester who had met an untimely end. Her death acts as a precursor to what will happen to The Woman, and the first anomaly she notices is that a tear runs down her predecessors face. A tear would mean that before her death, she had felt an emotion: fear, sadness, empathy, joy; whatever the cause, it shouldn’t have been possible.
At this early stage, she doesn’t question anything; she never asks anything out loud; she observes. The Woman has been sent there to do a job; there are rules she has to abide by, and she likely has targets to hit to keep her bosses happy. She travels in the van around the streets of Glasgow looking for men to pick up from the hoards of happy Celtic fans leaving the stadium. Thousands of men all walking in the same direction, talking about the same thing. It’s almost too hard for The Woman to pick from all the potential prey — the equivalent of trying to find the tastiest steak from a field of cattle.
She stops men on the street to ask for directions, a way to make conversation and find out if they’re in a relationship or returning home to a loved one. If they are single and live alone, they are ripe for the picking. It is fascinating to watch as Scarlett Johansson pulls the van window down to chat up these guys as a lot of it was not acted or scripted. Many scenes, such as those set in the nightclub and shopping centre, and the scenes in which Johansson’s character picks up men in the van, were unscripted sequences filmed with hidden cameras. The production team would later inform the subjects they had been filmed and ask permission to use the footage. They were then talked through what extremes they would have to go to if they agreed to participate in the film once they understood what we were doing. You have to admire Johansson’s bravery as she really was flirting with them, and they were either nervously excited but apprehensive or overconfident and completely up for it. These natural reactions give the film that extra something; it’s almost like watching a wildlife documentary. You can predict the men’s reactions, and you will make assumptions about them based on their behaviour.
Whether or not they could tell she was Scarlett Johansson (she doesn’t look her usual self in this film), or if they were just struck by this incredibly alluring woman who made it pretty obvious she was interested in them, all of the men, even the coyer ones, couldn’t help but answer the questions which did not beat around the bush, “Where are you going?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Would you like to come back to my place?”. Her outfits were designed to entice. Sexy, but not over the top. To have her dressed like a sex worker in short skirts and stockings would have put the men off because while yes, men (and every gender) love to have casual sex with someone beautiful and sexy, paying someone who does it for a living is still a taboo, and let’s face it, we humans prefer to have sex with people who want to have sex with us, not those who are doing it as a job and for money. We at least want to pretend there is an emotional connection, a real attraction and for our temporary partner to enjoy themselves with us. At least most of us do — I will get onto those that don’t later.
The Woman wears tight jeans that accentuate her curved thighs and bottom with a cerise top edged with lace that shows just enough cleavage and ankle boots with a high heel making her appear taller and put a wiggle in her walk. Her hair is soft, dark chocolate and messy as if she just got out of bed; her skin is pale and looks paler against her bright red lipstick and dark eyeliner. It is said that men find red lips attractive because they mimic the colour of a woman’s labia when aroused and swollen with blood. It makes sense, we are just animals after all, and procreation is a natural instinct. Her outfit is topped off with a faux fur coat, just enough to give her that edge, a coolness, a hint that she might just be a bit wilder, a bit kinkier than other girls, and certainly the wife. It’s incredible what one garment can make you assume. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all judge a book by its cover. Interestingly, she picks the coat herself at the shopping centre, unlike her other clothes taken from the body. To be a wolf on the prowl she wanted to look the part.
After several unsuitable candidates, The Woman finally finds the perfect prey. A single young man on his way home alone. Cocky and confident enough to believe that this woman was genuinely interested in him. She leads him into the darkness of her supposed home, so entranced by the promise of sex that even if he does notice that the property is a run-down slum, he doesn’t care. At any other time, entering a place like that would be done with trepidation and questioning, but the allure of The Woman makes him blind to everything but her.
Now begins her ritual. The Woman walks ahead into a pitch-black room, a void space with the sole focus on her and the garments that she removes as she walks dropped on the slick black floor. The men that she picks up follow her lead, undressing and never taking their eyes off her, not noticing that the floor has become a slick black goo and that they are walking to their deaths as they are submerged. The floor is still solid under The Woman’s feet. The victim looks above to see her walking away, yet he seems unable to struggle or swim back to the surface. At one point, one of the men observes another man’s innards sucked out, just before he goes through the same fate, only his outer layer of skin left, floating in the jetsam. The victims’ meat then travels onto a conveyor belt of flesh, guts and entrails to a light source in the distance.
Her job is done. Without an inkling of remorse, she gets dressed and goes back on the hunt.
The most distressing moment of Under The Skin is not the gruesome deaths of these innocent men—we only see what happens to them on one occasion, and that is all that is required — but something altogether more tragic. The Woman travels in her van to a cold, pebble beach, setting her sights on a lone ocean swimmer. She flirts with him, he flirts back, but just as things start moving, the man notices a family in trouble. A woman has gone into the sea trying to rescue her dog from getting washed out by the waves. Seeing his wife struggle, her husband wades into the sea after her, leaving their baby sitting on the beach alone. The man runs down to the beach and jumps into the sea to rescue him. He is successful at dragging the husband back to shore, but as soon as he does, the husband jumps straight back in, determined to bring his wife back. The husband, wife and dog do not make it out alive.
On the shore, the man lays exhausted from the rescue attempt, unable to get up. The Woman, who has been watching all of this unfold without a flicker of emotion, walks to her prey and, instead of helping him, picks up a rock and smashes him across the head with it. She then drags his body to the van and drives him to his death, leaving the lone baby sobbing on the beach. My heart could barely stand it. Not giving any thought to this child’s wellbeing goes completely against human nature, and even though I know it’s just a film, I found it truly disturbing. The little boy is still sitting there in the dark, with the tide at his feet hours later when the biker comes. For a moment, I had a glimmer of hope that he would be rescued, but The Biker is just there to collect the prey’s towel and leaves the child once again, distraught that he has been abandoned, snot running down his face and crying out for help. You know that he will die out there, he will be washed away or the cold would kill him. The horror of his fate haunts me and it’s not even real — that is human empathy in action.
The behaviour in this scene is both absurd and beautiful. The man does whatever he can to save his wife despite risking his own life. Despite that, he almost dies the first time; he tries again because he will not give up on the woman he loves that easily. Not right in front of his eyes. You might wonder why he didn’t consider his child left behind on the beach, but he believed that his child would be safe because there were two other people there; the man who rescued him and a woman who was watching from afar. Everything he’d learned about human nature up to that point in his life taught him that most humans are compelled to look after the most vulnerable and that most people are kind. Even with all the criminals in the world, it would take a complete sociopath not to rescue a child in danger.
In watching the beach scene, I have answered my question about why human’s feel the need to group together: strength and safety in numbers.
The camera soars over great expanses of the rugged Scottish landscape, over lochs where mist rolls like waves on the surface, the only sound is the wind. Its beauty is stunning and terrifying in equal measure. It is a vast space that should be so experienced and appreciated by people, yet there is no soul around. Instead, people are congregating in ugly, busy cities of grey concrete where little lines the streets, but you know where you stand with it. Being out there in the wilderness alone would be imposing and oppressive. It would be you vs the hills, the weather and the wildlife and you wouldn’t stand a chance if one of them turned on you. If something were to happen to you out there, no one would know for hours, days or even weeks. Most people would have someone who missed them; a partner, friend, relative, work colleague. But that isn’t the case for everyone.
The Woman picks up a hooded man (Adam Pearson) on the street, she asks him for directions and he reluctantly agrees to help her. He lifts his hood to reveal he has neurofibromatosis, leaving him facially disfigured. Unlike pretty much every human, she doesn’t startle when she sees his face. She repeats the same programmed statement of, “that’s better”, which he initially interprets as her taking the mick. The Woman has no concept of what is and isn’t attractive to humans; she just sees a man. However, she quickly picks up the correlation between how the man looks and his status in the world. She asks all the usual questions, but his answers are very different from the other men. No, he doesn’t have any friends; he hasn’t ever had a girlfriend. He is going to the store at night because fewer people are likely to see him. His entire existence is based on people’s perception of him — nobody knows what is going with him under the skin. He’s not just alone; he is lonely.
The hooded man is the hardest to entice. It’s not that he doesn’t find The Woman attractive; it’s that he literally can’t believe this is happening to him. His experience of life as a human up to this point is that people can be cruel; they will play pranks on him, bully him, laugh at him. He is not used to the attention of a beautiful woman, who shows him kindness and is there of her own free will. His self-confidence is non-existent as other people have hammered that out of him over the years. When he agrees to go home with her, she has to do more to prove to him that she is serious; he is the only man she strips off entirely for; the others were naked and erect while she was still in her underwear. Still, she leads him as she did the others to the black goo and he is almost submerged when she changes her mind.
Earlier on, while she had been prowling the streets in her van, she was given a rose by a stranger via a street seller. She notices blood on it and for a moment, her expression is of confusion. Does she believe the blood is hers? How can it be if she isn’t human? Her breathing becomes laboured, then she looks around and sees that the seller has cut himself with the rose thorns. The Woman seems almost sad and disappointed. Was she beginning to think she was human after all? After she leaves the disfigured man in the pool of black goo, she catches her reflection in a small mirror. She looks at herself closely. She turns to hear a fly buzzing to be let out by the door. The light from outside is reflected in her eyes, as is the fly’s movements, which creates a galaxy in her eyes. From then on, her eyes go from blank and dark to shiny and much more prominent in her display of emotions.
It’s only when The Woman begins to question herself and her place in the world that she begins to observe the women around her. She’s in her van and as she listens to the report of the missing couple and child she witnessed drowning, she watches women conversing, laughing and walking. She drives around the streets once again, but now she notices the women, not the men. At first, I thought her target might have turned to women as it plays out like her stalking of male victims, with the foreboding background music to match. But that music fades out and we hear the hustle and bustle of the street as our eyes scan the women on the screen. The Woman is still looking for prey as there are some men in the shots, but it’s an afterthought. Her focus is on women. There is a quick flash of The Woman’s eye, and instead of blackness, we see her pupil and the green-gold iris around it. As we watch women interacting with each other, an image of The Woman coalesces into a collage of gold lights, much like the intricate gold in Gustav Klimt paintings. She is not interested in killing women; she is interested in being a woman.
The Biker recognises this in her too, as he checks over her sternly. It seems as if the two are communicating but in silence. She is silently berated as he questions her, mistrusting her intentions. Something like this must have happened to her predecessor and perhaps many more of their species for him to notice the same pattern in her. This male alien is oppressive, and she is scared of him, but she still can’t go ahead with tricking the disfigured man, not after learning of his loneliness and understanding that he took a chance on her despite his gut telling him not to, that this couldn’t be really happening to him (he literally pinches himself). The Woman has learned empathy, compassion and the human need to protect the vulnerable.
The Woman lets him go and flees in the van leaving him to run across the barren wastelands on the outside of Glasgow naked. It is probably just as he expected would happen, and that is tragic in itself. Sadly for him, it won’t be just another experience of humiliation as The Biker has him in his sights, captures him and throws him in the trunk of a car. There will be no evidence left behind; the Biker will see to that — an older neighbour who sees what happens from her window is not likely to be with us much longer either.
Out in the wilds of the Scottish Countryside, The Woman finds herself alone, with no coat and with no purpose. She looks around and finds herself alone in a strange land. Her sight is obscured by the white fog that surrounds her. It’s an eerily calming scene. The film itself hints at dangers at every corner or darkness that follows her, yet in this scene, she is still isolated but on the verge of something entirely new to her. The possibilities beyond that moment are endless. She is human and can be anything and anyone.
She ditches the van so The Biker cannot track her and she walks for miles to a remote village in the pouring rain. A man prompts her towards the bus stop and she waits. On the bus, the same man, without being pushy, asks her if she’s okay and if she needs any help — this is the first time anyone has asked if she needs anything. The Woman doesn’t speak again for the rest of the film. She is muted now that she has broken through her programming and has no idea how to say anything off-script. She is about to learn a lot about being a woman.
What It Is to Be a Woman
Accepting the kind man on the buses offer for help, he lends The Woman his coat and gives her shelter in his home. They watch old Tommy Cooper sketches on the TV but has no concept of humour — that would take a while to learn. This is day one for her, and she can begin to understand what it is to be a human, just like a baby would. The nice man washes up and plays music on the radio, and The Woman taps her fingers along to the beat; a new skill has been learned.
For the next few days, the two spend time together visiting new places like a castle ruin in which he leads her into the dungeons. She expresses fear of being led into the dark, probably because she knows that he’d end up dead if the tables were turned. But the man does not hurt her, never tries it on with her. At night The Woman explores her naked body in the mirror, looking at her shape, learning to appreciate what is attractive to humans. Paradoxically, she learns to feel self-conscious and seems to question if she looks as good as she could.
The next day she presents her mouth to the man communicating her desire for him to kiss her. He does, and they gently explore each other, leading to sex, but he cannot penetrate her. She takes a lamp and looks at herself down there closely. Like her mouth when she tried to eat some chocolate cake and choked, there is no entrance into her body. Her species does not require food or drink to survive or intercourse to breed. The Woman may be learning human behaviour, but she cannot ever be a real woman. Upset, she flees the man’s house and runs off into the forest.
There, she comes across a logger who tells her where to go to find the way out. Her experience of men up to this point has been that they are often easily led, and they have mostly been kind and helpful. She has no reason to think that this man could mean her any harm, yet she senses danger. She finds a shelter to sleep and wakes to find him rubbing her legs sexually, so she runs for her life.
You might say that what happens to her is karma — she did lure several men to their deaths after all. Yet, the experience for her as a woman is very different. Unlike the men who walk freely yet unwittingly to their doom, The Woman is hunted differently; chased, struck down, violently dragged to the ground, her clothes torn off her rather than willingly removed. There’s no flirtation or small talk as she offered her victims. He tears more than her clothes; he rips her human suit, revealing her black core. Horrified, he runs away only to return with gasoline and a match, setting her on fire, killing her.
In her final moments alive, The Woman learned that men could have very different characters, that they could be just as inhuman as she was. To feel no consideration for another person, to inflict pain on them and take their body without consent, purely to fulfil their selfish hunger for sex, is truly inhumane. Her hunch about the man in the woods was a very human notion, but perhaps one learned from the males of her species. The Biker was in control of her movements and actions; her role as a harvester dictated to her. With no identity and no autonomy, her life ends.
Another thing that’s quite odd and unsettling is that in both scenes where The Woman finds herself in danger (her van being attacked by a gang of youths, her attempted rape and eventual murder), we’ve gone from being frightened of her to being afraid for her. Without an inner dialogue, the audience is forced to inhabit and decipher her movements and expressions. The hidden cameras used to shoot most of the film and its spontaneous conversations adds to that foreign feel, especially with the thick Scottish accents of the town’s inhabitants. The Woman is the only one we can readily hear and make sense out of, yet she’s an alien we know almost nothing about.
She was a lonely woman in a lonely man’s world. While her existence in this story is science fiction, for many women, we find ourselves in her. Who am I, if not a woman who fulfils specific duties within her highly regulated domain? While laws, without question, are continually placed on how I use and dress my body up, very rarely do we find ourselves combatting laws that place these same restricting laws on men’s bodies. Women often find themselves the meat on the conveyor belt, a delicacy to society’s standards, but here we are, alien in a world that negates that we are very much human.
Watching Under The Skin in 2020 has given me a lot more insight into why some people find it so difficult to obey the rules imposed on them during lockdown and quarantine. We are being asked to do the opposite of what we would normally do in times of crisis: to be around people in need to help, console and encourage them, and share in their grief. Instead, we are told that keeping away is the best thing we can do for the people we love if we really care about them. It’s tough; it goes against everything we’ve learned about being human up to this point.
The beauty of it is that we humans can adapt and quickly. Our usual strength in numbers is now our weakness and precisely how the alien virus gets to us. Its target is not the lonely, but the sociable. For antisocial introverts like me, lockdown life hasn’t been too different from life before COVID-19. It’s actually worked in my favour, which I know sounds selfish, but I know I’m not the only woman who is happy that people have to stay two metres away now. I am not the only woman who will continue to wear a mask in public now for way longer than I am mandated to because I don’t want people to breathe over me or talk right in my face.
How would the disfigured man be living now? Potentially things could be a lot easier for him as if everyone is wearing a mask; he can too without sticking out like a sore thumb. He may be able to go out in the day time without anyone staring or even noticing him being there. While other people may feel their freedoms are being taken away, he may be feeling freedom for the first time in his life. On the flip side, more and more people feel isolated, and the damage to mental health due to loneliness could be catastrophic in the long term.
At the beginning of this article, I said I didn’t want things to go back to the way they once were. I think that’s mild PTSD talking, and we may all feel the mental effect of the pandemic for years to come. If any good can come out of the situation we are in, it might be that humans learn a new behaviour: to care less about appearances and more about what’s happening on the inside, under the skin.