copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

Sex, sensation and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin

by Elena Gorfinkel

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) is an exercise in cinema as a sensorial machine. The film is preoccupied with the systematic capture of bodies, of flesh and light, of faces and skins, of elemental substances like fog, rain and watery rocks, smoke and snow, glass panes and thick woods, the luminous and the numinous. Like a sensory overstimulation chamber, the film presents us from its start with a surfeit of contradictory material that veer from the experimentally abstract to the verité. We watch the formation of geometric shapes that suddenly appears as the building of an eye; then the inky dark roads illuminated by a glowing trail of car lights from a motorcycle; a woman’s corpse, emitting a single tear, bluntly undressed in a blinding white light box.

Under the Skin tracks the movements of an alien predator in disguise, played by the sex symbol of our precarious times, Scarlet Johansson. Our alien-star body is a woman too womanly, painfully brought down-to-earth with tacky black wig, fake fur coat, tight acid washed jeans and heavily rouged lips. She trawls the streets of Glasgow in a white van luring unsuspecting men into a conversation and a ride. The alien’s mesmeric point of view provides a detached, but sensate observatory of the thrumming rhythms of human activity in urban and rural Scotland. The alien’s labor resembles therapy as much as seduction or abduction, as she coaxes details from her victims, makes them feel at ease, flirts and establishes their lack of connection or family. The unsuspectingly harvested men follow her into an unmarked house, hoping for the potential of a sexual encounter. As she entices them in, a pitch-black space opens up like a maw with an invisible oily pool that swallows her prey.

Her mission, observed and managed by a motorcycle riding black guard, soon gets derailed. The alien exhibits a chilling lack of empathy for her victims: she ignores a crying baby on a beach, whose parents have drowned trying to rescue their family dog, and opts instead to go in for a kill, targeting the heroic camper who attempted to save them. Yet after an encounter with a victim whose face suffers the congenital scars of neurofibromatosis, she is moved, through some force or motivation that remains opaque to us, to free him from his fate in the black pit. Shortly, Johansson’s alien goes off the rails wandering away from her directed task, spurred on into some register of feeling. We can only inexactly impute, and perhaps we project, that she has found kinship with another being at odds with their corporeal exterior; however, the film and her blank affect reveal little of this action’s causes.[1] [open notes in new window]

As the alien departs from her script, she inclines towards experiencing the patter of gesture and movement that she had earlier impassively studied through the car’s windows more directly. She pursues small, constitutive pleasures, appetitive, aesthetic, sexual, self-confirming, that signal corporeal and sensory self-awareness. An impeccable worker until she is not, we are shown the limits of her imperfect corporeal and behavioral mimesis. The failure of her training (she is made to hunt and seduce) to prepare her for human relations and the failure of her body and capacity to be socially reproductive becomes a harrowing ordeal. Without her “operating system” and its codes—the van, the routine of the “work,” the learned language of seduction—she is unmoored into an aleatory space, encountering the human at close range; but it is a closeness that demands permeability, assimilation, vulnerability. The demands of such permeability are violent, her fleshly disguise becoming a malleable substance exposed to the force of male desire, violation and finally assault and murder. These relations fray, exhaust and ultimately obliterate her, as her difference—a non-human difference masquerading fatefully as a sexual difference—remains indigestible to its host organism, a human Earth.

Sense, surface

The film’s narrative is largely unmoored from psychological motivation, causality, or conventional interiority, relying on atmospheric sound, electronic score and limited dialogue to instill an atmosphere at once seductive and surgical. Our attempts at semiosis are forcibly disaggregated from human ideality. Glazer has noted that the film, a nine-year effort, began with a feeling, that it was derived from something “more felt than thought.”[2]

Even while it offers us the content of her vision, the sensory nature of her perceptions, the physicality and arduousness of her embodied travails, the film poses the problem of the difficulty and indeed impossibility of imagining, figuring cinematically, the contours of alien consciousness. Formally, this difficulty is fundamentally tied to the non-human apparatus of the film camera itself. Small, embedded hidden cameras deployed in the van, from which the spectator observes the alien driving, inviting men in for a ride, shoot these scenes of capture in a verite style. It perpetuates a spectatorial experience of dispassion, in the technicity of a surveillance gaze. The cameras, built expressly by Glazer’s production company for the film, extract from its amateur subjects —non-professional passersby—performances largely devoid of self-consciousness. This is of course in a film that soon concerns itself with its protagonist’s heightened self-awareness as alien, and Johansson’s acting style toes a line between the mechanistic and the naïve in her habitation in the alien’s hidden skin.

The film thus bears a certain isomorphic shape. Crew and shoot concealed, housed inside the van, covertness and disguise are a function of production process and design as much as thematic material. The images that these procedures produce are sundered from subjectivity or depth-models of character and represent optical or physical points of view. Pure externality reigns. The hidden camera footage remains “strange” and estranged from an anchoring subject. Ara Osterweil suggests, in her account of the film, that the point of view is “triply mediated” by camera, alien’s perspective and the van window.[3] Psychology is repelled at every turn, even as these shots come to rest in an understanding that they are approximations of the alien’s amorphous, ambivalent gaze. This element of the film parallels with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), which delineates a narrative universe woven through with invisible cameras that multiply the ubiquitous potential of performance and enactment as the basic condition of its world. Under the Skin thrums in contrast to Carax’s work however with the energy of suspicion, the image’s deceptive plenitude modulated by an enigmatic foreboding.

Stylistically, Under the Skin expressly solders extreme abstraction with the meat of the morphological in unexpected ways. In addition to the use of extreme chromatic fields (as discussed by Lucas Hilderbrand in this issue), this formal challenge can be seen, for example, in the spectacular dematerializing transformation of the human harvested male meat, rendered as blue translucent flesh, that splits, a sack of skin, converting into fluid viscous and molten red material which chromatically overtakes the images. The meat sludge it gets pushed and churned down a chute, turning over and converting into the depthless perspectival line of red at the center of the screen, a horizon of red that turns the image from a figurative to an abstract, animated visual field. To read this image, in which human bodies have been transformed into radiant red slop on a conveyor belt and then into the abstraction of a crimson line of glowing light, gestures to a horizon of ecological negation and violent transvaluation, one to which the film’s end—and this discussion—will return.

Having established some of the formal and affective terms of the film, this essay asks: what vision of sex and what modes of corporeal intractability does the film present? And what kinds of phenomenological engagement do these forms demand—particularly on the film’s first viewing? Organized by an examination of two scenes, a couplet of failed eating and failed fucking, this essay considers how these events articulate the film’s ambivalences regarding the heft of a manufactured body derailed into seeking pleasure, oriented by a renewed “desire to desire.” The film’s formal fixation on sensorial flooding and estrangement of cinematic vision extends from a concern with the nature of an alien embodiment, in the absence of a legible subjectivity to ground it. The problem of the impossible perspective of the alien emerges in the film’s denouement as the challenge of recognizing strangeness and distinctness through the figure of sexual difference. I do wonder, as does Lucas Hilderbrand in his account of the film’s racial inflections in this issue’s dossier, the extent to which difference can stand as the grounds for the film’s drive towards formal and ideological abstraction?[4] Pursuing the roles of sensation, sexual difference and the film’s courting of an impossible, asubjective interiority as a way into these questions, will lead me towards a more speculative horizon, as I will suggest that the film can be seen to stage an encounter of sorts between feminist theory and new theories and philosophies of materiality and the non-human.

Impossible orifices: indigestible

The film’s generation of a striving to apprehend human consciousness as sexual and appetitive self-consciousness is articulated in two scenes of specularity and interiority, in the alien’s encounter with eating and with sex. As Linda Williams, among others, have elaborated, the ontology of cinematic representation relies on the screening out and marking as ob/scene or off-scene the human sex act. Cinema’s pornographic imaginary has long allied faciality and genitality, the penetrability of vaginas and mouths.[5] It is no wonder that the first film to introduce to U.S. audiences to the publicly exhibited penetrative sex act in a narrative feature context, Deep Throat (1972), relied on the spectacle of oral sex, stupendously dramatized by the actress Linda Lovelace’s ability to swallow as if consuming the entirety of the male organ. The mouth and lips of stars, since the development of the close-up, have always been an erotically privileged feature of the face, as they signaled the sine qua non of female allure. By extension, orality in screen sex is not a supplementary but a fundamental precept of the cinema’s interest in the limits of bodies and pleasures.

Another kind of appetitive orality, eating on screen, like the image of the real sex act, is emblazoned with a truth function. Watching an actor eat is a confirmation of their alimentation the contact of substance and their insides, an act and register of an unseen corporeal process. Eating, a filmed event much like the largely overlooked ubiquity of breathing, cannot, by and large, be faked. It sustains the margin of an unsavory, invisible element of an actor or star’s physicality. Many filmmakers have deployed the act of alimentation as device to question the bounds of the medium and its investment in the work and movements of the body. Varied cinematic scenes of eating come to mind. Vera Chytilova’s orgiastic banquet scene in Daisies (1966), in which two young women gorge at an overfull, decadent table set for absent guests, lampoons the conjunction of femininity, appetite and the austerities of state socialism with a spectacle of exuberantly wasteful enjoyment. In a completely different register, Chantal Akerman in her first feature Je Tu Il Elle (1974) merged the scene of duration with the act of ingestion, as the director-actor, in a state of melancholia over an absent lover ate sugar naked in bed for what seemed days. And Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (1964), in which the trans-superstar Mario Montez fellates and eats a banana for the camera in long take and closeup, takes the connection of sexual performance and appetite towards one representational extreme of displacement. Montez’s performance throws into relief the ways that eating (and not eating) a banana become a metonym of sex, even as it simultaneously marks off the limits between eating and sex as bodily processes of subsumption, ingestion, incorporation.

In this wider context, it is telling that the alien’s first act of self-determinative autonomy from her employment as harvester and lure of human flesh, she attempts to harness an experience of human enjoyment, a corporeal experience for itself, for herself, and for no other. (Is there a trite joke here about women and sex and chocolate?) In the prior sequences, the alien leaves her station as harvester. Walking out from the van, she steps into a white field of dense fog. Subsequently we observe her sitting in a restaurant, as she confronts a piece of chocolate cake she has ordered.

Here the work of Johansson’s mouth, her heavily rouged and plumped lips becomes a threshold, a pornographic sublime. The first portion of the film has already imprinted this body-part-object as a formal motif and image of narcotizing recurrence. Mouth and lips, cavity and cavern are eroticized and eroticizable both by the film, and by Johansson’s effulgent star text. The point-of-view shot that observes the cake lingers for an extended take on the image of the alien’s hand awkwardly holding her fork aloft, then severing ever so surgically, a corner then bringing it up to her mouth, an act presented with hesitation. The cake looks back, suddenly made strange, even as it is put into quotes—a generic category, “a slice of cake.” In the drenched air of disguise, one wonders, is this cake passing as cake? Its objectness suddenly mimetically summoned as a mirror image of her blankness, elsewhere in the film—she a “withdrawn,” reticent object, and now this cake is one. She chews the cake and is unable to swallow it. She spits it out in a coughing repulsion, an involuntary spasm. A reverse shot reveals the disturbance as a tear in the social, as she is observed by restaurant goers—couples, families—her attempt at gastronomic normalcy a reflex disturbance.

What is “her” body in this moment, in the recognition of her lack of an alimentary tract, in her unwilled spasm of rejection? Neither vomit nor human waste, the chocolate cake grows suddenly unappetizing, a brown splotch on the table. [FIGURES 26-28] Anality circumvented, her inability to consume implies the lack of waste. Upon a first viewing, this repulsion produces for the spectator an element of shock, or resistance. We cannot know her inside, even as that sense of desire and knowledge feels contaminated in the very moment of its recognition. But something is indeed wasted, squandered—a potential for pleasure foreclosed. While outlining here the progression of a first viewing and its affective resonances, we can also recognize that it is a mirror of a later scene that isomorphically traces and inscribes, like a speculum, another limit of the alien’s insides, a new “lack” seen and scene otherwise.

Further the experience we might ascribe to the alien’s eating of cake remains incommensurable. What might cake taste like to an alien? These are things that are bidden as beyond our knowledge, impossible interiors, questions that can only be centrifugally expelled, pushed outwards. The untranslated physical sensation is mustered and refused, only possible as a repulsion. Her alien body rejects its environment and the customs that would acculturate her, make hers like other bodies. Mimesis can only go so far. This serves as a scene of pathos, as we experience the impossibility of her human subjectivation. The taste of her freedom, while foreclosed, is left on the spectator’s palate, sticking, like a piece of cake, to the roof of the mouth. The alien’s unknowable embodiment provokes an idea of an appetite without measure, a harrowing, disorganizing drive, a desire to feel, to taste, to touch and to smell –a grasping for the correlation of relation, for reciprocity. An alien being strives to exist, estranged from her sense, attempting to feel her own limits, capacities, and boundaries.

Impossible orifices: impenetrable

This oral gesture of negation and repulsion is mirrored in the alien’s exploration of sex and of intimacy, a progression to subjectivation that shifts from orality to genitality. Soon after the failed eating of the cake, she walks dazed along a village road, and tarries at a bus stop. She wears no coat, and is growing cold. On the bus a kind enough man asks if she needs help. After a pause she says “Yes,” one of the few scenes of dialogue, and one of the few words spoken by her in the second half of the film.

On her first night in the man’s house, he brings in an electric heater to warm the room, it glows preternaturally. She stands rigidly upright in the corner, and we wonder whether she will sleep standing up, the red line of the heater glowing. What are the conditions of survival of this body? What does she need to sustain her energy and capacity? The line glows brighter. We faintly recall the conveyor belt of human meat. She discovers her human body, illuminated in crimson, in the mirror. It is a scene of prehension and phenomenological correspondence—as she watches her body move as if a marionette, bending her knee, examining the curve of her back, seeing herself in reflection for what seems the first time.

The stranger’s kindness of course has a telos, and it arcs into a romance, an inverse seduction, heteronormative-style. He takes her on a “date” to a ruined castle, lifting her up in his arms to rescue her from stepping in a puddle in a chivalric gesture lost on its recipient, who cannot read such codes. He encourages and coaxes her to enter into the deep maw inside the ancient castle, and walk down its dark steps, which she does with great hesitation. He whispers reassurances at the bottom of the steps. One can speculate that the entire trip to his house and the next day’s descent into the darkness of the ruin’s remains instills trepidation and fear in the alien, mirroring her own harvesting and the spaces of capture earlier in the film. We can only speculate.

The night they go on their excursion, she gives herself up and over to the kind strange man, as he kisses her slowly, and takes off her jeans. She is wearing the underwear of the dead girl from the film’s beginning, she lies flat in the same pose as the corpse, being undressed, she not yet dead.He mounts her and attempts to penetrate her, we see a flash of their bodies entwined from an undesignated point-of-view between them—after a number of thrusts, perplexed, the man dismounts mid-coitus. She jumps up to the edge of the bed, and with an athletic energy, an admixture of adrenaline or fear, she grabs a table lamp and looks down at her genitals. The shot is framed from behind, the illuminated image like a magic lantern show, a painterly reckoning with and through light. There is no cut to a point of view shot to what she sees, an impossible orifice. She stares bewildered out the window; the spectator can only see this as a larceny of her nascent personhood, her currency and capacity for experience and sensation suddenly foreclosed. This scene shocks in its pace, shocks in the primacy of a look that cannot be shown, a self-specularization. We also cannot look at what she looks at, a double blot. When was the last time a film showed a woman looking at her vagina, existent or non-existent? An incendiary look, not into a mirror, but a look that nevertheless refracts the remains of a face in lieu of a genitality. Looking into herself, again she finds an involuntary rejection, a reversion to externality. Her body is not her own, and her body is only face. She cannot make it her property—self-possession is unattainable. This sex act feels like an end, the arc of a timeline, a reproductive and relational horizon forestalled, a dysphoric recognition. She is thrust into action, repelled outwards, now on the run.

Speculum of the Other

The above scene of the alien’s looking at her own genitality is riddled with contradictions and reversals. But it can also be associatively used to recover some feminist philosophical legacies, as it projects them outwards against depth and onto surface. I propose to read and think through these moments in Under the Skin within French feminist Luce Irigaray’s axiomatic metaphor of the speculum. In her first published work, Speculum of the Other Woman, (published in France in 1974)Belgian-born Irigaray challenges the structure of Western thought and metaphysics as built around metaphors of male visibility, constituted as coherence, unity, sameness and linearity. Western philosophy by its very structure thus banishes from its premises the female and her iteration of the difference, sexual difference. She is made to not exist, converted into a symptomatic lack. Philosophy makes her sexuality un-incorporable and unfigurable. Irigaray pursues a discursive deconstruction and reorientation in which she restages the preoccupations of Western thought from Aristotle to Freud vis-a-vis the manifestation of a female morphological imaginary. She writes,

“But which ‘subject’ up till now has investigated the fact that a concave mirror concentrates the light and specifically, that this is not wholly irrelevant to woman’s sexuality? . . .Which ‘subject’ has taken an interest in the anamorphoses produced by the conjunction of such curvatures? What impossible reflected images, maddening reflections, parodic transformations took place at each of their articulations?”[6]

Irigaray’s speculum, its “impossible reflected images” and “maddening reflections” is oriented to both to the history of feminist critiques of Western metaphysics and its representational aporias, as well as its potential for productive mimetic distortion. Forcing the problem of visibility from the perspective of the female body’s figuration as site of knowledge and space of non-knowledge, as both architecture and axiom for confounding the epistemic gaze of the philosopher, Irigaray seizes on the complex and multi-valent use of the speculum, as both physical optic object and metaphor for patriarchal modes of knowing. This sense of the speculum has a hermeneutic force for the film in its Irigarayan implications—in its use as a trope of producing knowledge about the woman through devices of projection. But it also bears out in its broader, gyno-historical inflections, as a dilatory device that opens up a cavity of the body (in the gynecological instance, the vagina) in order to image it. Process and image here become coextensive. In its physio-optical inflections, its curved reflective surface provides an inexact mirror that provides both index and distortion.

I propose that the film takes on the morphological and ontological legacy of the speculum as one of its formal logics. The reflective function operates at a macro, extrapolated level of formal structure. Under the Skin is full of such reflective, distended surfaces, which transform distinct images across an unfathomable breach of difference, either through editing or effects or acts of a larger structural, narratological curving across the body of the film. Mirrors, reflective surfaces, inversions of form and symmetrical structures proliferate. Most broadly, the films fundamental inversion splits the film into inverse halves—the alien predating, working, watching, surveying, and then subsequently being predated; she is at first mobile hunter, an enclosed driver, and then an exposed, hunted, vulnerable pedestrian; she is exteriorized and interiorized; she lures men into cavernous spaces, and then is herself forced (under the auspices of another form of seduction, that of romantic pretense not sex) into a cavernous ruin, forcing herself into an impossible depth. The alien is extractor and she is extracted, labor power that then becomes an exploitable resource, a body for the taking and the violating by virtue of her visible, presumably “vulnerable” feminine form, no longer a lure but easy prey.

Oddly enough, a speculum appears in video game designer and theorist Ian Bogost’s discussion of the nature of speculation in thinking about the philosophy of object being. Bogost presents the speculum as a hermeneutic tool of distortion and inexact transfer, with which to describe and account for the autonomy, the self-sufficiency of a world comprised of things, things that do not need humans to exist and be thought, but that have relations and interactions with other things— “to speculate how things speculate.” Bogost writes,

“A speculum is a mirror, but not in the modern sense of the term as a device that reflects back the world as it really is, unimpeded and undistorted. As Narcissus proved, a reflection is different enough to hold power, including the power of drunk love. The lesson holds beyond mythology: from ancient times to the middle ages, a mirror was an imprecise device, usually a convex disc that reflected enough light to give a viewer a rough sense of the figure placed in front of it. Only a rough sense…the speculum of speculation is not a thin, flat plate of glass onto which a layer of molten aluminum has been vacuum sprayed onto it, but a funhouse mirror made of hammered metal, whose distortions show us a perversion of a unit’s sensibilities.”[7]

The speculation Bogost’s speculum here affords is one far afield from it as medium of penetration, corporeal dilation but not entirely at odds in its capacity for curving, with Irigaray’s sense of the speculum’s potential as another way of knowing female subjectivity, despite its legacy of epistemic capture. While Bogost is concerned with the existence of objects and their “unit operations,” he seeks in the speculum that perversion that distorts the object, that accepts all objects as only accessible through fundamental distortion, due to the nature of their existence in excess and outside of human thought. Perhaps the specula of Irigaray and Bogost are irreconcilable, but I think placed alongside each other, as conceptual objects, they reveal the thorny problem of relationality and how to be with difference that haunts Under the Skin.

Sexual (in)difference

While rendered through the hardy motifs of science fiction and noir, Glazer’s film can thus be postioned as an instantiation of debates occurring within and between feminist and queer theory and the philosophical manifestation of what Richard Grusin has aggregated as the “non-human turn,” (and that include speculative realism, object oriented ontology, and “new materialisms,” of which Bogost’s work is also part.) [8] Speaking broadly, the latter bodies of thought have staked a claim on theorizing the non-human, and exploring a de-hierarchized creaturely life, as well as the vitality of living and non-living things, that exist apart from human knowledge, perception or thought about them. Countering the anthropocentrism of prior philosophical traditions in which the human was figured as the center of a world that could be thought, speculative realism and object-oriented approaches consider the nature of the object as a self-contained unit, leveling hierarchies between species, genuses, or categories of object.[9] They counter an epistemological approach that accepts our knowledge of things as conditional to human perception. Graham Harman, one key thinker in this field, in particular proposes that all objects are fundamentally inaccessible, “withdrawn objects” that co-exist with each other but pre-exist human involvement.[10]

The subject and motifs of Glazer’s film hint at the contours of some of these notions regarding a world of objects through its perspective of estrangement. But it also cross-pollinates them with feminist concerns. The film produces a convergence of the sexed object of desire with the alien as “object,” a seemingly “withdrawn” form, unfathomable, “inaccessible” through frames of human knowledge, but existing for and of itself. The alienness of the object merges with an explicit alienness thematically and generically, an alienness clearly forged through gender and sexual difference. Under the Skin thus “returns to sender” the philosophical and political problem of the object in late capitalist modernity. Countering an abstracted wonderment in a flattened ontology of coeval things, the film takes it, forward and back, to the intractable domains of sexual difference.[11] Is the difference of sexual difference the housing mechanism—a “Trojan Horse,” the host body?—of the alterity of non-human matter itself, its processes and relations?[12] Or might it be the other way around, when seen in the films preponderance of clouded, clotted mirrors?

Inhuman matters

“Thus the ‘object’ is not as massive or as resistant as one might wish to believe. And her possession by a ‘subject,’ a subject’s desire to appropriate her, is yet another of his vertiginous failures. For where he projects a something to absorb, to take, to see, to possess…as well as a patch of ground to stand upon, a mirror to catch his reflections, he is already faced by another specularization. Whose twisted character is her inability to say what she represents. The quest for the object becomes a game of Chinese boxes. Infinitely receding. The most amorphous with regard to ideas, the most obvious ‘thing,’ if you like, the most opaque matter, opens upon a mirror all the purer that it knows and is known to have no reflections. Except those which man has reflected there but which, in the movement of that concave speculum, pirouetting upon itself, will rapidly, deceptively, fade.”[13]

If we return to Irigaray’s account of specularity and the speculum, we find the above passage, that notes that the desire for the object is grounded in a fundamental failure, in that it leads to an object that can only refract and never reflect, can only capture the nature of its own desire, even as it eludes the grasp of meaning. What Irigaray describes about the grasping for the (female) object by the (male) subject, if placed alongside the ending of Under the Skin, produces some remarkable symmetries, the opaque matter, the maddening muteness of the object, a mirror with no reflections but those reflected, projected by a logic of masculinist power and subsequent disappointment. But what happens when that very conjunction of sexual difference also becomes the lever between human and non-human form?

Under the Skin exposes cinema’s thorny desire for the figuration of a subject, writ large, as the most seductive and most impossible project, refracted in the mute and brute materiality of alien flesh. The conclusion of the film reveals a thingly flesh that is made to violently evaporate, to doubly burn out of the image, to disappears as quickly as it is revealed. What is this black tarry substance, this clammy, clay-like epidermis—which appears as much plastic as dirt, organic and manufactured, charred before it is charred again? The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced. The pursuit of an impossible interiority, and the tissue between inside and outside, presents sites of opacity, non-meaning, non-understanding—the “dark matter,” which in multiple figural registers haunts the aesthetic imaginary of the film and its conceptual drifts.

This difficulty of figuring alien interiority, the cinematic impulse to ascertain that interiority, undoes itself in the multiplying apparitions of other forms of difference. The concluding trajectory of the film speaks as much to the conjunction of racial mattering with an ontological limit,[14] as to the nagging resonance and affect of the alien’s experience, less as woman, but perhaps even more persuasively as a transgendered embodiment.[15] What is this attempt at “becoming female” (pace Osterweil) more like than the brutality accorded to transgendered lives, in their struggles to live in another skin? As some transgendered viewers have noted, the account of the alien’s struggle to assimilate echoes the experience of a trans estrangement. J. Hoberman more crudely describes the alien as “an implacable agendered It.” These abjected others within the other - the racialized subject, as Hilderbrand accounts for here in this dossier, the transgendered subject, the female subject—coagulate and intersect at the site of a fantasy sexual difference. Like Irigaray’s “Chinese box,” the site unravels and refracts, re-occupied by other specters of difference.

It seems fitting, then, that the film’s penchant towards abstraction incorporates the motifs of a new materialist objectness, and the continuum between human objectification and thingly being. As the alien traverses the forest, lost and alone we see an image of her sleeping in the woods superimposed over a landscape of trees rustled by a thick wind. It recalls earlier moments of the alien’s subsumption by or alignment with or attunement to the “natural” or the non-human environment, or her encounter with the force of material things: her encounter of the ant on her finger which has crawled off the corpse, her point of view of a fly buzzing on a glass pane door in the house where she ensnares men, right before she “frees” the disfigured captive; her face subsumed by light flares and refractions, and her figure lost in the white fog. Each of these in their way signal a continuum between her objectness and status as thing in the world alongside other creatures, beings and inanimate, inhuman yet vital things.

Yet the terms of this affiliation with thingness also bespeak a radical violence and dispossession, the route of the object’s abjection. The carnage of our alien heroine’s demise—her rape, assault and murder by fire, as she gets drenched in gas and immolated by her attacker—operates as an incontrovertible act that evokes sexual, transgendered and racialized violence, mobilizing internecine histories and barbaric traumas—lynching, witch burning, capital punishment, public torture. The film’s conclusion witnesses the reduction, the breaking down, of the body we have so closely shadowed to particulate matter—delimiting it to chromatic form and indistinction, receding into a horizon soon to be nonrepresentational, beneath the scale of our vision.

We are presented with another specular inversion: instead of seeing inside, the inside “sees” the outside—in a logic of exteriorization—things only come out, transform into other forms. During the sexual assault, as her human skin is ripped off. The alien, breaking down, comes into contact with her human skin and face, coming face to face with herself. Disguise and exteriority meet where they undo each other, as the revelation of the alien skin underneath a human skin turns to flame. It is an image that burns, an image that disintegrates, shrinking from its own heavy collapsing figures, looking at each other’s separability.

Here again the film’s form works as a mode of negation that might deign to give us solace in its metaphysical beauty. An unknowable body turns into gas, air, light, water, moving upwards, exchanging its smoky path with snow. The transmission between smoke and snow, represent a dialectical transit in two opposing directions—rising and falling, black and white, heat, ash, and water, the intermingling of physical atmospheres, becoming weather, bestowing decay. Falling snowflakes descend in extreme closeup cover the camera’s lens, threating white out, a complete obliteration of vision. The non-human perspective implies the pov of the dead body. The ending literally resorts to the last sentences of Michel Faber’s novel, a redemptive gesture towards images that only superficially veil the brutality rendered on the films surface. In the novel the alien self-destructs, as she plans the exploding her own car, and the consequences of her combustion,

“The atoms that had been herself would mingle with the oxygen and nitrogen in the air…Her invisible remains would combine, over time, with all the wonders under the sun. When it snowed, she would be part of it, falling softly to earth, rising up again with the snow’s evaporation.”[16]

The film’s death scene is neither a planned suicide as it is in Faber’s novel, nor is it like the replicant’s timed expiration and life span in Blade Runner (1982). We actually have no sense of what the alien lifespan contains or sustains, its real or expected duration. The Blade Runner scene has its own revolt and pathos, but in Glazer’s film the forceful eradication of life, the margins of the alien’s “life-times” are rather narrow, easily extinguished, an arc of inevitability as the alien’s function as worker has been obviated.[17]

We could see these elemental concluding images, and their resonance with the meanings of the novel’s conclusion optimistically: as an imagining of a new materialist notion of entanglements, an intimate intertwining of elements, in “intra-action,” the inhuman a sphere of ethical mattering. But this would perhaps give up or overlook the violent transvaluations that have taken place to produce them. We might do well to follow on Jordana Rosenberg’s astute analysis and critique of the blind spots inherent in the ontological turn and its intersection with conceptions of difference and in particular queerness, and not to give into the romance of ontological de-individuation into matter’s sheer contingency as the grounds of liberation. Prioritizing the “molecular” and the queerness of matter disavows the specificities of history and the inscription of power on bodies. Rosenberg writes,

“No matter how much ontological work may posit the unenclosing of sexuality from the realm of the subject as the liberation of sheer desire from the burden of identity, from the socius, and from a considered, confrontational relationship to power, do we truly want to be unleashed into pure aleatoriness? ….There is something here, something pulling back from the surrender of the future to sheer contingency. That something is not the subject per se, or “the human,” but the collective, which waits for us, and waits to be rediscovered in our theories of materialism, of the socius, of the ontological strangeness of life under capitalism. Surely the collective is that aleatory togetherness of which the ontological turn dreams—except this togetherness is one in which, at the end, we are not extinct but transformed.”[19]

Rosenberg warns us not to elide the very clear forces, powers, and economies at play that might benefit from a mystification of agency and will, invested in the speculative credit of the fantasy of a mute, deindividuated, subject-less matter. Under the Skin thus indulges the spectator’s ineradicable desire for the alien’s aspiration towards humanness, and encourages the spectator to strain to see details of the alien’s subjectivity or legible inner life, enacted in the pursuits of sexual pleasure and corporeal enjoyment, housed in an oversaturated star body. This anthropocentric trajectory is matched with a refracting violence enacted upon the alien’s otherness exposed, her illegible sexual form; it refuses her any further possibilities of relationality or sociality. Cinematically, the irrecoverable gap between non-human and human inner life is made tangible and sensible, paradoxically, through these final atmospheric images, of dissipation, decomposition, elusive loss; specular reflections that “rapidly, deceptively, fade.”


1. One could argue that this event, in which the man is ejected from the house, has little to do with the alien’s agency, that it is not she but the larger system that employs her, or the black pit, that rejects the body of this particular captive. [return to text]

2. Sam Adams, “Space Oddity: Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin,” Rolling Stone, April 4. 2014. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/space-oddity-jonathan-glazer-on-under-the-skin-20140404#ixzz3AwPl9gCy (Accessed April 21, 2015)

3. Ara Osterweil, “Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female,” Film Quarterly, (Summer 2014), 46.

4. Lucas Hilderbrand “Out of the Blackness and Under the Skin,” Jump Cut, Spring 2016.

5. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. 101-102.

6. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian Gill, Trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 144.

7. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 31.

8. Richard Grusin, ed. The Non-Human Turn, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Significant works in this wide field of inquiry include, Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. re. press, 2011. Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, Open HumanitiesPress, 2011; much of this thought follows on the notion of “non-correlationism” forwarded in French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, which contends that Western philosophy’s basic error since the Enlightenment has been to posit a correlation between human thought and the world, what he calls “correlationism.” Quentin Meillassoux. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. See also Steven Shaviro for his account of non-correlationist thought, Shaviro, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. On new materialist and vital materialist approaches, see Diana Coole, Samantha Frost, eds.. New Materialisms: Ontology Agency and Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

9. One anchoring notion within this body of thought is that of a “flat ontology,” (derived originally from Manuel DeLanda’s writing) which indicates a coevalness of things; each object has its own status as an individuated form, without criteria or distinction or hierarchy; Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London: Bloomsbury, 2002, 2013. See also Bryant, The Democracy of Objects; and Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, for varying takes of this concept.

10. Graham Harman. Tool-being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Open Court Publishing, 2002; Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court Publishing, 2005.

11. A political, identitarian critique of the “ontological turn” is most forcefully proposed by Jordana Rosenberg, who questions the return to ontology as a political symptom, and the fetishizing of contingency over collectivity and agency in, “On the Molecularization of Sexuality and some Primitivisms of the Present,” Theory and Event, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2014.)  <http://muse.jhu.edu/article/546470> (Accessed Feb 12, 2016)

12. Glazer, in the Rolling Stone interview, refers to the eye in the opening as a Trojan Horse: “That eye is an interloper; it's a violation of something so intensely human, the human iris. It's somebody being inside us and looking at the world through this perfect disguise. It's a Trojan Horse.” Adams, 2014.

13. Irigaray, Speculum, 134.

14. Analyzing photography, film and visual art, Alessandra Raengo elaborates a theory of race as an ontology of the visual in her On the Sleeve of the Visual: Race as Face Value, Dartmouth: Dartmouth College Press, 2013.

15. Willow Maclay, among other critics, has written about the implications of the film as an allegory for the experience of the transgendered, “Shine On: Transgender Allegory in Under the Skin,” The Vulgar Cinema (Blog). March 10, 2015. <http://thevulgarcinema.com/2015/03/shine-on-transgender-allegory-in-under-the-skin/> (Accessed February 15, 2016.) See also, Tessa Racked, “The Alien Gender: Under the Skin,” Consistent Panda Bear Shape: Fat People in Cinema, (Blog) July 26, 2014. <https://pandabearshape.com/2014/07/26/under-the-skin-2014-dir-jonathan-glazer/. (Accessed February 1, 2016)

16. Michel Faber, Under the Skin. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000. 296.

17. Neferti X.M. Tadiar, "Life-Times of Becoming Human." Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities v. 3 (March 1, 2012) <http://occasion.stanford.edu/node/75> (Accessed February 8, 2016)

18. These notions are drawn from Karen Barad, “On Touching: The Inhuman that I Therefore Am,” differences. Vol. 23, No. 3: (2012) 219; see also, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

19. Jordana Rosenberg, “The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present,” Theory and Event. 17.2 (2014) np. <http://muse.jhu.edu/article/546470> (Accessed Feb 12, 2016)