Under the Skin (2013)
July 18, 2014 1:39 PM - Subscribe

In this bold adaptation of a 2000 sci-fi/surrealist novel, a visitor to Scotland combs the cities and countryside for unattached men.

The film is a minimalist adaptation of the 2000 book of the same name, cutting out everything that doesn't directly pertain to the main character's experience.
posted by Anonymous (23 comments total)
So my operating reading for the film right now is that the arc of is the process of learning to be a woman, and as she learns more about being a woman the less comfortable she is around men, the less sure of herself, and eventually the ending occurs (how spoilery are we being here?). It's essentially about learning the position of women in rape culture.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:52 PM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

How does that reading relate to the neurofibromatosis character's scenes?
posted by naju at 3:50 PM on July 18, 2014

I think that scene is mostly important (as relates to her character arc at least) because it signals her development of empathy, for lack of a better term. The beginning of the scene has her going through the same script she used with everyone prior, mostly just basic questions and repeating phrases, which for all hr men prior was enough to get them to follow her home, a thing which she probably didn't think about at all. But when he reacts with such need and loneliness you can hear her change and begin to actually sincerely ask questions and become curious about him, about his loneliness and the importance of human contact.

I think (but correct me if I'm wrong) that that scene leads pretty directly to the second segment of the film-- there's an early scene where you see her observing men, watching men from her cab and learning about them; there's a second scene later in which she's observing only women and learning about herself (or her form). Which is also matched by the bit where she stares at herself in the mirror.

I don't remember the direct sequence of events but I believe those three parts are tied together.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:19 PM on July 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I guess I'm struggling a bit with the interpretation, because until the final scenes I don't see examples of men exhibiting rape culture behavior in the movie.
posted by naju at 4:26 PM on July 18, 2014

(Not that I have a better interpretation. I was somewhat frustrated by what I considered a lack of depth underneath the portent and atmosphere.)
posted by naju at 4:42 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well I only came up with the idea after watching it and have yet to go back to see it with that in mind.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:54 PM on July 18, 2014

That's a much a better developed version of what I was thinking towards.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:27 PM on July 18, 2014

I did not like this film. I found myself asking "why?" a lot. (It's a long list; what is this characters motivations? Why does she need to hunt? Why is she undressing a dead woman in the beginning, wouldn't she dissolve her like the men? Why is the male alien riding this motorbike and doing x y and z? Why why why... )

I do not feel that it was made well enough (in the dramatic narrative sense) to have earned the context that people are putting into it. Of course the viewer is free to interpret it any way they like; it is art after all. But I didn't care for how what little there was to the story was told.

The little baby crying alone on the beach was the most striking and arresting sequence in the film to me, but even then I kept wondering what had happened to it. The film does point out that it was never found, along with the drowned parents, so did it get dissolved too? And (oh no, here's another) why?
posted by Catblack at 10:18 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the character's motivations are pretty clear. She is a predator. She needs to lure men into her lair in order to get something from them and uses surface sexual attractiveness as bait. I don't think the details are terribly important (this film is poetry, not prose) although there is a suggestion that the men's meat and viscera are being harvested in some way and their skins left behind. She is ruthless about this, and quite effective, until she happens across one man with a disfigurement and gentle hangdog attitude — quite apart from the cocky boys on the make who typically approach her — and starts to wonder about his life. She feels empathy. And she spares him. At the point where she starts to take an emotional and intellectual interest in our world she becomes less effective as a predator, until she finally stumbles into a very bad situation that results in the immolation we see in the film's final scene. Presumably the guy on the bike will be along soon enough to collect her ashes and deploy the next, temporary, soldier in what seems to be an ongoing series.

My experience of the film would not have been improved by exposition revealing that she was an alien from planet Mongo, or a malevolent emissary from the next dimension, or a time-traveler. That's all interchangeable, penny-ante stuff. When the pictures are this evocative, I can make up my own backstory if I need to. What's important about the film is the character arc I described above coupled with Glazer's impressive visual sense — images like the Kubrickian abstracts of the opening shots, which suggest planets in a solar system as much as they do elements in a camera lens, the wisps of human skin floating in the void, that baby abandoned on the beach, the alien unmasked and tearing off its skin in the woods at the very end. Those are images I will never forget, and they're made haunting by the surrounding, pessimistic story of a cold and malevolent presence in our world who learns slowly to love, or at least to feel, only to have that emerging sensitivity open up a new vulnerability to exploitation, sadism, and violence.

If the value of Under the Skin is tied up mainly in how it communicates visually, rather than in traditional narrative, that kind of thing just doesn't appeal to a lot of viewers. (Thus the film's art-house status.) But I think the key scene at the center of the film featuring her conversation — really the only real conversation that takes place in the movie — with the character played by Ron Pearson (previously) is amazing by any measure and gives the film's images the emotional resonance they need.
posted by Mothlight at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

I thought this was an awful film but at the same time it was incredibly hypnotic, and I am glad to have seen it. The soundtrack was excellent, too.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:15 PM on July 20, 2014

I love it until the last act, which I think is kind of a disaster.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:26 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll expand on that: This whole Little Mermaid thing where she becomes a Real Girl and dies because love makes her vulnerable or something is just very trite and would be bad in any movie, but is astonishing in this one, which for an hour seems well above such things. The first two acts of the movie deserve so much better. I was very disappointed in the ending, but I love the first hour so much I know I'll see it again, and maybe the second time it'll work. I hope so.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:30 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the last act didn't make any sense to me (it felt arbitrary) until I started to think about how the film dialogues with the concept of human predation upon humans.

Like, there's this routine established with each of the men that she lures back to her minimalist abstract dungeon thing that is reversed in the last third of the film-- the whole scene where she almost (without really knowing what's going on) has sex has her uncertain, carried across water, led into penetrating darkness for an encounter, etc.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:49 PM on July 21, 2014

Oh, I get it, I just...don't think it's that interesting. The first hour of the film seems to give us a character who's genuinely alien, and I found that fascinating; but the last act seems to imply that what read (at least to me) as inhuman and scientifically curious was really just naive, which is disappointing. Around the time she's watching TV with the young Billy Connolly-looking dude, I started saying to my screen, "Lame. This is lame. Where did the good movie go?" and never really stopped.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:16 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Oh yeah, I couldn't stomach that scene with the kid on the beach, and then the radio that she's listening to in the car later made a point of going Also disappeared is the child who is exactly the same age as shakespeherian's son, so I hope he wasn't planning on sleeping tonight
posted by shakespeherian at 8:30 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, I went into the theater with high expectations, given the fantastic trailer and my love and admiration for the director's previous movie, Birth - which has all the richness, grace, and emotional/tonal ambition I was hoping to see in Under the Skin.

I found it almost impossible to believe the same director made both movies. Not because of the massive stylistic or budget differences (I love stylized experimental art, so I'd never be in the "it was slow and weird and boring" camp of haters) but because of the lack of grace.

I am totally behind the idea of art made with the intention of creating real audience discomfort for a narrative or philosophical purpose. I've made some of it myself. But you EARN THAT SHIT, with grace, relevance, intent, sense of scale, and not defaulting to shock value for its own sake.

Too much of Under the Skin was the gross-motor unearned flavor of inflicting discomfort.

--- DISTURBING SPOILERS (not that I recommend seeing the movie) ---

Particularly the scene with the baby and then the clumsy radio announcement about it that serves no purpose other than to say "Fuck you, viewer - just in case you were hoping the baby was found by someone, rather than spending the last couple days of his life screaming in terror for the parents who died in front of him and then eventually dying of dehydration himself, you're wrong."

For me, Birth is unforgettable for the right reasons and Under the Skin is unforgettable for the wrong reasons. I'm curious how I'll relate to Birth now - I'll watch Birth again and see.

And I'm extremely curious what Glazer's next move will be. Have not written him off... but I don't remember ever having been so disappointed in a theater.
posted by kalapierson at 9:56 PM on August 18, 2014

Was faintly surprised this was passed over at the Oscars... but probably a bit too extreme for The Academy
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:56 AM on January 17, 2015

"Why is she undressing a dead woman in the beginning, wouldn't she dissolve her like the men?"

Well, that part at least made sense to me. The men going under happened in all-black settings. Her undressing the dead woman and then putting on her belongings happened in a stark white setting, so I took it as a totally different thing. Specifically, I felt that was the movie's way of saying, "This creature is putting on a woman suit and this is going to be about what it's like to be a woman" (with the benefit of hindsight, of course).
posted by komara at 9:47 PM on June 14, 2015

images like the Kubrickian abstracts of the opening shots, which suggest planets in a solar system as much as they do elements in a camera lens

Also it is a book adaptation that departs significantly from the original to provide its own take, so the whole project has somewhat of a Kubrick feel.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:25 AM on April 17, 2017

I came to this film from a review that mis-summarized the plot - they said that this was a story where an alien disguised as a woman hunts men, but the men are all awful so you root for the alien. I think that's a total misreading of the film. None of the victims are exactly pillars of the community, loners and outcasts that they are, but they are also not obviously bad men. One, the swimmer, seems like a hero, he risks his life to rescue the man at the beach. The worst men in the film seem to be the street gang that attempt to kidnap Scarlett early in the film, and the logger rapist at the end, and neither of them become prey.


The score is great. The intro sequence and few glimpses we have of the alien "process" are eerie and shocking, but quite original. I like that there's little/no explanation for why the aliens are harvesting humans. Are they food? Fuel? Future disguises? How many aliens are there, actually? Two? Four? More?

The cinematography itself seems to communicate so much, by making the camera show us the alien's attention on the people around her. You keep getting these shots of people on the streets, over and over, and you have to ask, "OK, why is this shot here? Why are we spending 1 second looking at this guy, and 5 seconds looking at that guy? What's the pattern?"


I read the title as having a double meaning.

There are inhuman creatures that are literally under human skins.

The motorcycle guy(s) and Scarlett Johannsen are initially cooperating to collect men. They are smart enough that they are looking for opportunities to pick targets that will not be missed - people far from home, with few friends or family.

The motorcycle guys seem to be somewhat akin to terminators - they speed along rain-slick winding roads, they kill without hesitation, steal cars, whatever is necessary.

Maybe the swimmer incident is the inciting one, now that I think about it. Their interaction appeared to be going according to her usual plan, but then he ran off to try to rescue the couple being pulled out to sea.Scarlett has to bash him with a rock and drag him laboriously all the way back to the van. Maybe that got her thinking something like, "If I were better at this, I wouldn't have had to drag this guy away, at some risk and effort, and clean up the camp site."

This is where "humanity" or perhaps "empathy" gets under her skin. She has to empathize with her victims to be more effective at luring them, but then she realizes how terrible this is, and spares the guy with the facial tumors.


I read the final act of the film as Scarlett trying to flee, and the motorcycle guys looking for her. In the the restaurant scene, it looks like she is trying to eat human food for the first time, but it's not clear why she would do this - does she need energy? She doesn't seem to eat anything else for the rest of the film, or suffer from starvation. Or is she preparing to fully immerse herself in human culture, and knows she cannot avoid eating with other people for long? She seems to try to quickly establish a relationship with the guy from the bus, but flees ... during sex? Right afterwards? I'd have to re-watch that sequence a bit, currently I'm a bit mystified about why that triggered her to run into the wilderness.
posted by rustcrumb at 7:44 PM on August 17, 2023

but flees ... during sex? Right afterwards?

She stops the sex at the moment of penetration, I think?

I read that as very much like her failed attempt to eat: she is trying to become more human, to do things that humans do; but her human facade is literally only skin-deep, she is not physically capable of consummating either of those acts, and the failure serves only as a reminder that she remains alien.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:02 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]

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