Under the Skin Review and Analysis

Under the SkinI just saw Under the Skin, the 2013 science fiction film based on Michel Faber’s novel, which I understand is rather different from the film. I’ve made it a point to find out as little about the novel as possible, because I’m interested in seeing the film as it stands alone. And Under the Skin is one of those films that makes you think. I’ve discussed it with many people, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is like a Rorschach test. Everyone has theories about what it all means — none of which agree.

Now that’s all great! It speaks well of a work of art that makes everyone think different things about it. At the same time, it makes me ultimately less interested in determining what it means. In that way, it’s kind of like one of my favorite films, Barton Fink. I don’t focus on what it means; I focus on the plot and the characters, which are more than enough.


Of course, in terms of feeling, Under the Skin reminded me of nothing so much as the German masterpiece, Die Wand (see my discussion of it: Die Wand or The Wall). There are a few technical reasons for that (beautiful cinematography and deliberate editing), but it’s more that both films are saturated with loneliness. It’s also the case that in neither film was I that interested in what was going to happen, but rather was just content to follow these women on their journeys.

In a sense, the plot of Under the Skin could not be more tired: space alien visits Earth with evil or ambivalent intentions only to learn to appreciate humanity. But it isn’t that simple. The Female (Scarlett Johansson) shows so much reticence and fear in much of the film that it goes beyond cliche.

Under the Skin Plot

Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else.

The first half of the film is made up almost entirely of the Female (the character’s name) driving around and picking up guys who she is careful to determine will not be missed. She then takes them to a house under the pretext of seduction. They are led into a room where she slowly undresses as she walks backwards. They walk toward her, but slowly sink into the floor where they eventually caught in a kind of gel. This is all done without emotion, as though the Female were collecting butterflies.

But almost exactly halfway through the film, she picks up a man with a badly deformed face (played with startling fragility by Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis in real life). The Female seduces him as with the others. There are a few differences, however. First, he is the only of the men that she talks to during the process. “Dreaming?” he asks. “Yes we are,” she responds. Second, they are much closer physically. And third, it is the only such scene where she is completely naked. It is also the first time we are given an image of who is “under the skin.”

The seduction done, the man captured, the Female is about to leave the house, but catches her image in a mirror. She stares into it for a long time. And then the scene cuts to the door of the house from the outside. She opens it and Pearson is allowed to leave — naked but free (at least from her). It is a 12 minute long sequence, and the turning point of the film. The woman now goes off the reservation. It would seem that she’s been doing a job, but now she wants to escape.

A New Life

She tries to become part of the society she’s been studying or preying upon. She tries to eat and that doesn’t go well. Ultimately, she tries to have sex, and that doesn’t go well either. But between those two events, she visits a castle with a man who has been taking care of her. And as they leave the castle, they have to descend a steep spiral staircase. She is terrified, and he is helping her along. But their physical positions are a complete reversal of the previous scenes where she trapped the men. He is in front of her, facing her, encouraging her to follow him. It’s hard to mistake that she fears it is a trap.

Meanwhile, her earlier companion — a man on a motorcycle — has brought in three others and they are racing around the countryside looking for her. They don’t really matter. Under the Skin isn’t a boilerplate narrative. There is no confrontation. They are just there to stress that the Female has done something unusual and they are concerned about it. (One obvious, but interesting, way to analyze the film would be to put it in a Marxist framework.)

Looking for Answers

Ultimately, we do find out what is “under the skin.” But that is hardly the point. Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else. She’s apparently not happy with her own kind yet can’t relate to humanity either. In this way, the Female in Under the Skin is even more lonely than The Woman in Die Wand. And the “sad” ending doesn’t seem sad. It comes as something of a relief. Because the whole film, we’ve watched the Female suffer.

Along with the suffering of the Female is a profound sense of confusion. While she’s doing what seems like a very boring job, she has a purpose — what I call Sudoku Meaning. But without that simulacrum of meaning, she has no meaning. This is something I understand very well. I go through periods where I feel it profoundly. But I am lucky in that I am the skin, so I am capable of connecting with people, even if it is just on a physical level. I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t have that, at least, to fall back on.

Given the life of the Female, death is a gift. Ultimately, it is to all of us. I feel that I will die much the same way: wondering what it all means one moment and then smoldering into the cosmos the next.

5 thoughts on “Under the Skin Review and Analysis

  1. I couldn’t get past the guy with facial issues. Largely because it was quite clear they were real. You can watch Hurt in Elephant Man and you’re seeing a gifted actor portraying a tormented person. But in UTS I was like, “you’re using this guy with real suffering for your damn sci-fi movie?”

    Which I’m sure he was thrilled to be in. He got a nice check, and he’s got his scene in a movie he can show to friends on DVD forever. So I strongly doubt he felt exploited at all. Yet I was still bugged by it. That’s too close to what I did. My mom, a 911 dispatcher, hated “Die Hard” because the people on shortwave radio interrupted each other (which is impossible, when you press the “talk” button you cannot hear the radio, “talk” cuts off your radio to avoid feedback). My brother, a Navy guy, hated “Hunt For Red October” because the ships moved wrong. I enjoy both those movies! We all get passionate about areas we’ve put years of effort into.

    The use or depiction of people with disabilities in films, and as entertainment in general, is an old, old question. In old-timely sideshows, among the bearded lady and sword swallower, there’d usually be someone referred to as “The Geek.” Who would eat anything. Hand the Geek a bucket of worms, the Geek will eat them.

    Well, this is a condition called “pica,” and it’s not uncommon among people with autism. Autism, above all, is a different way of sensing the world than most of us. What seems hot to us may seem cold to someone with autism, what seems cold to us hot to that person. It totally depends on the individual. Some people experience the sense of touch, or light, or sound, differently. People with pica get comfort from the sensation of chewing; you hand them anything, they will chew it.

    (The first gentleman I met who had pica, my job trainer — my trainer! — demonstrated the syndrome by handing that gentleman a bucket of powdered laundry soap, so I could watch him eat it. “Isn’t this crazy?”, my trainer asked. It certainly was. (I must admit, that in future months, while we were all trained on how to restrain people having violent outbursts, when this trainer was getting his ass beat by this gentleman, I would not exactly run to his aid as fast as I could.)

    Outraged citizens all over the country called for the ban of sideshows. And yet the sideshow performers, by and large, did not want these bans. Exploitative? Yes. An income? Yes. What else were they going to do? Become regional marketing supervisor for Ford?

    The same issue comes up in Freaks. Or the Wizard Of Oz. Or Daniel-Day Lewis playing a man with cerebral palsy, Dustin Hoffman or Claire Danes playing someone with autism. (All of which are work I admire.) Where is the line between treating these difficulties with respect, and using them to sell a for-profit product?

    I am not sure. I am sure Hurt as John Merrick was definitely on the angels’ side of that line, though.

    • I understand. However, Adam Pearson is an advocate for people who suffer from neurofibromatosis. I suspect he saw being in the film as part of that. You should check out pictures of him online because his pride and joy come across powerfully in many of them — especially those with his (I think) twin brother, who does not suffer from the disease. He’s not the character he plays. But I do appreciate your concerns.

      On another topic, it was only on the second viewing that I noticed that his character did not escape, but rather was caught and murdered by the motorcyclist. I think I could write a book just analyzing this film. I do like my idea of a Marxist analysis because even after she acts as an individual and saves his life, the system itself continues on, killing for whatever its purpose is. And in the end, the Female is killed as a direct result of her abandoning the system. Funny how most people in America can’t see that they are slaves to the capitalist system. They’re so wedded to the system that they think it is part of them. It is the water that fish cannot see — the blue sky that neolithic man could not see. Even while it strangles them, they cannot see it.

      • Wow. What a cool guy! In this article, he mentions having a disgusting joke contest with Ms. Johansson, and winning. I’m sure they are both quite talented, but I know right now which one I’d rather get drunk with:


        (I’d like to challenge him on that disgusting joke front. My mind can get downright nasty when inspired.)

        So much of activism for people with physical challenges is showing the world you exist. I can’t tell you how many times we’d go to a ballgame or a restaurant, and employees there would act quite nicely, but like we were visitors from Mars. The best, though, is little kids, who’ll come right up and ask “what’s wrong with your body?” Nobody I’ve ever worked with minded these questions in the slightest, they are not intended to be cruel (and people with these challenges know cruelty.) Sometimes parents would come over, chastise the kid, and apologize. Why apologize? It’s an honest question. And guess what? Now that kid knows there are citizens with these challenges, and won’t be as likely to vote for cutting their funding.

        On capitalism, it’s SO invisible. If you’re doing well by its rules, you are some kind of magical wizard, and if you’re doing poorly, you rage with hatred at every possible target — especially yourself — but not capitalism’s rules. Which are so goddamn arbitrary. I’m sure you’ve seen those studies where two groups of subjects are asked to play a game, and one group is randomly assigned some advantage; extra money when they pass “Go!” or whatever. Inevitably the group with advantages wins, and believes they deserved to win.

        Human mammals are both collaborative and competitive. We can design society in a way which encourages one trait more, or the other. When Larry Wilmore got shitcanned by Comedy Central, Oliver, Bee, and Colbert sent him and his staff three successive shipments of booze on three successive nights. Were they all competing? Hell yes! But none wanted the others to lose. Or felt validated by seeing someone else get screwed. (Wilmore and his staff drank this booze, on TV, and by the third night they were positively goofy.)

  2. UTS: I agree with much that has been said. I think the performances by Adam Pearson and Scarlett Johansson are excellent, and that it does act as a kind of advocacy for people with his condition. The idea of Marxist analyses of the film is intriguing, but I think Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie is more relevant. I must read the novel by Michel Faber, but Walter Campbell’s rendering of the story is certainly in the tradition of Scottish Nordic noire. I find one can feel sympathy for the lead character, the Female (Johansson), who in the second half of the film becomes a victim, and for the disabled character (Pearson), who she saves but who her ‘controller’ decides to capture and kill. I strongly recommend UTS to all who might be attracted by a combination of science-fiction and Scottish (/Australian, Faber is Australian) Nordic noire.

    • I’m not a Marxist, but I usually find Maxist analysis of literature pretty interesting. In this case, I’m interested in any kind of serious analysis. The film begs for it. I’ve thought about reading the book, but then I figure I’m already depressed enough. I’ve been reading nothing but Terry Pratchett recently, just trying to get through the day. But maybe some day. As it is, I haven’t even been able to sit down and watch the film again — even though I own it. But it is an excellent film and I’m sure I will revisit it.

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