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.

The figuration of one of the captive’s bluing flesh from inside the dark pool, seen from the perspective of the bottom of the pit.

The collapse of another victim’s body, that of the swimmer, (as witnessed by the dying captive in the prior image). The body collapses into a sack of skin that has been expunged of its contents, and sucked into the void.

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.

The trajectory from meat to abstraction is manifested in chromatic terms, as the liquid flesh is pumped down a conveyor belt, akin to molten lava in a perspectival horizon point. The red sludge of meat appears to roll up like a scroll in this sequence of frames, as the flow of violently dematerializing bodies, converted into fiery color, is [word missing].
Bodies are transvalued and abstracted further into a single glowing red line in the distance. The glowing abstraction of the line holds within it the horror of death and decomposition, a world beyond figural representation.

The spectator is seemingly given entry into the space of the line and into the molten lava of bodies as a churning red liquefaction overtakes the whole image.
The red line returns, insisting on the power of the void as a function of visual abstraction.

A cut to a fully red frame with a generating star signals some turning point in the films attempt to negotiate the tension between the nonhuman and an imagining of alien consciousness.

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.

Under the Skin’s fixation on the erotics of Scarlet Johansson’s rouged lips reinforces the importance of orality to her scene of exploratory taste.

The objectness of the chocolate cake, in a shot that announces its strangeness to the spectator vis a vis the alien’s perspective.

The alien looks at the cake. The pace with which the camera anatomizes the encounter with the cake, proceeds with a hesitation and slowness ...
... as the alien deliberately cuts the cake with a fork ... ... and haltingly lifts it to her mouth.

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.

The linkage of literal and subjective and erotic interiority is figured by the film as an encounter with the alien’s insides.

The impossibility of the act of eating, seen here in the alien’s awkward mastication, ...
... is matched with the sense of potential of taste, pleasure and enjoyment, and experience that the spectator knows. The cake is ejected from the alien’s body ...
... as she spits the bite onto the table ... ... suggesting a blockage to her human subjectivation, an experience that is inaccessible to her.

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. 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.

At the strange man’s house, the alien stands awkwardly in the corner ... ... in the warming glow of the heater, incapable or unaware of sleep.
The heater becomes figurative, its humming mechanicity a source of illumination, as we see that the alien is undressed and her legs are bare.

The alien seems to recognize her body as an object, as she raises her knee to view her own movement in the mirror.

Staring at herself in the mirror the alien sees her own figure anew, seemingly and speculatively, in a different light than in the earlier mirror scenes of the film. The alien’s erotic selfhood is foreshadowed.

She flexes her back muscles in the mirror, observing the contours of a flesh alien to herself.

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.

Coaxing her into the dark cavelike interior of the ruin, the alien’s suitor reassures the seemingly frightened woman. The scene parallels the alien’s own earlier seductions in the dark house.

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.

Back at the house after their “date,” the erotic plot unravels. The alien gives her face up to the man in an act of seeming surrender.

An overhead shot of her on the bed echoes the opening sequence’s framing of the female corpse, shot from a similar angle.

Her panties are removed, in the same set of gestures that attended ...

... the stripping of the dead woman of her garments by our alien.

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.

Being mounted by her host in missionary position, the alien expresses some awkward register of pain or discomfort.

A cutaway shot that situates the camera in the vague space between the alien’s and the man’s bodies, confirms the difficulty of the sex act.

Rendered impenetrable, the alien jumps to the edge of the bed and grabs a lamp, attempting to see what is located in the zone between her legs.

The alien’s self examination is observed from behind, and the light of the lamp creates a magic lantern effect as she attempts to see herself. The specifics of what the alien sees, presumably the lack of a vaginal opening, is not given through a reverse shot.

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.