Under the Skin: This Woman’s Work

(What follows contains SPOILERS for the movie and the novel on which it’s based, as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. However, given that this is an in-depth discussion of the movie, no attempt is made to summarize the film’s plot. Some further edits need to be made, and will be done on the 27th of July. While writing this, I found the following to be insightful and helpful: “Under the Skin Takes the Horror Genre in Infectiously Strange New Directions” by David Edelstein, “Under the Skin” by Noel Murray, “Under The Skin’s Alien Seduction Will Get You Where It Hurts” by Charlie Jane Anders, “Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Under the Skin Review” by Tina Hassanmia, and “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75.)

There was a time I was one of a kind
Lost in the world out of me myself and I
Was lonely then like an alien
I tried but I never figured it out
Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd
Ooh that was then, like an alien

“Alien” by Britney Spears

Jonathan Glazer’s movie is like a fable, like Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), a children’s fable turned upside down, Cocteau in color. I make this identification, and I immediately hesitate if it’s entirely right. The mix of subject and the approach, a fable told from an adult perspective, but without discarding the surreal imagery of fables, makes me think of Cocteau; the movie itself, with its long takes and frequent stretches without dialogue, make me think of Robert Bresson. The obvious choice not taken here is Stanley Kubrick. The score by Mica Levi reminds one in many places of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Dream of Jacob”, the early part features a breathing effect on the soundtrack that’s like the sound of 2001‘s David Bowman’s breathing in his spacesuit, and the sense of being alone with the movie, as if stranded in the arctic wilderness, suggests Kubrick as well – but his movies tend to hint at the epic, an enigmatic obelisk of larger significance. This story, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward, small in scale, the obvious focus this single character. The lengthy shots allow us the possibility to mine them for nuance, but there is nothing like a riddle we might feel compelled to solve.

We might easily speak of this fable in more traditional (or ancient) terms, to see its connections to the past: this is a story about a witch who lures men to her magical house, where they are transformed into food – just as the witch of Hansel and Gretel would bring in children and cook them into gingerbread. Though she wishes to cease playing the role of a witch, she cannot, and cannot be an ordinary woman either. When this witch abandons her home, she loses her power over men, and now she is vulnerable. She is attacked by a man, loses her human form, and like many witches before her, is burned alive. The images which, for me, most strongly link this fable with those of the past are the witch’s decaying, magical house and the end where she’s destroyed by fire.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

The movie opens as an object, entirely dark except for a beacon light, moves to dock with a torus, the vast emptiness lit only by a single nearby star. We hear a voice over the soundtrack, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) learning english – except for a football player named Andy, there are no character names in the movie or the credits, but for ease of writing, I’ll give the alien the name she carries in the book, Isserley1. These objects conjoin while Isserley slowly learns this earth language, and then our perspective shifts. The movement of these objects in space becomes an eye, and we’re left uncertain if these two sets of images are separate or identical. The mechanics of the docking ship might imply the underlying mechanics of sight, or it may be more explicit than that – these objects are not in outer space at all, but the various parts of the mechanical eye in Isserley’s human mask locking into place. This entire sequence, ending with the camera pulling back from a tight focus on the pupil, ends with a smash cut of the title in black on white: UNDER THE SKIN. This is a movie about looking and its underlying mechanics. Seeing is a voyage across a distance, it is a mechanical sequence whose inner workings we are unconscious of, and yet there is an aspect that can be considered imprisoning. The cold darkness of space becomes the darkness of the pupil, and the men are lured to the witch’s haven by her looks, and she in turn traps them in a room of infinite blackness. Given this connecting point, we might see the areas of the eye reflected in the movie itself. Isserley first gets her clothes from a dead woman in a room that’s of endless white, like the eye’s sclera2. She is entirely unmoved by the dead body, her curiousity only roused by an insect’s motion, and we are given a close-up of the crawling ant; Isserley is a worker drone and a predatory insect as well. Isserley then goes out to hunt for men, the colored area that is the iris, and brings them home to the confining darkness, the pupil. Whether or not we see the union of the spaceship with the torus as a metaphor for sexual union, this movie is not just about looking, but the sexual gaze. Isserley slowly comes to grips with the sounds of english – “Ba-Ba- T- T- K- Kuh- Ch- Th- V- Th-” – in order to learn this new language while the ship docks and the camera pulls back from the eye; this movie is about learning to look again as if it were an unfamiliar tongue.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Isserley is now dressed in the other woman’s clothes, and she goes to a mall to pick up a few other things, lipstick and a fur coat. We follow alongside her at waist level as her behind swishes back and forth. We are stalkers, we are hunters, vision is a kind of travel, and now we travel with her; vision is also a trap. She is the one who’ll be doing the hunting. Isserley starts talking up a series of men, and it’s these conversations that make up the overwhelming majority of the movie’s dialogue, and these conversations are entirely superfluous for the traditional purpose of learning something about Isserley or her victim. They are a simple flip of the predatory male who seeks out women for biological release, with the conversation only a tactic for getting to the main action. Isserley talks to a man, and her mouth is a warm and inviting smile; the man walks away, and her face shuts down and goes cold completely.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

This is a movie where shots are held and held and held, designed so we might examine its multiplicities. Nothing is given away easily, nothing is given quickly, and any observations you make are perhaps uncertain and unresolved. Isserley’s eyes peek through the dark hair that falls over her eyes, and it’s like a sniper peeking out from a foxhole; she’s shot in the rearview mirror, her mouth blank and her eyes absent; she drives along, and her eyes give away nothing except the focused hunt for game; we catch her in the rearview mirror as light and shadow pass over, and her face conveys something, melancholy, regret, exhaustion, something. Isserley looks at her first victim, and there is something unsure in her come hither look, and it might be something like a girl trying out the unfamiliar, alien customs of adult seduction games. Isserley looks on a happy couple at the beach with loathing, and this could be an exile stranded far from home hating the possibilities she cannot have.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

In the forest sequence at the movie’s end, Isserley moves like a woodland animal given human shape, and this sensibility guides her behavior throughout the first half of the film, an animal whose focus is entirely on hunting, and nothing else. Outside the circumstances in which she might engage her prey, she is suddenly fearful. She travels Glasgow at night, unworried of what might befall her, and on these journeys, she engages in conversations with strange men, indifferent to what will happen next. Yet when she finds herself amongst a group of women, she is suddenly scared. She doesn’t know how to act in these circumstances, she’s worried as if her true form will be found out. They drag her to a club, and the noise scares her, the man who wants to talk to her frightens her. When she realizes that he’s trying for that thing, she is abruptly at ease. This is familiar territory, she knows how to handle this, she’s handled this many times before.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

In moments when we might expect any woman to feel some kind of fear, she is indifferent to threat. This film is often a horror movie in reverse. She meets The Nervous Man (Adam Pearson), who suffers from neurofibromatosis, and she asks him the kind of intimate questions, without feeling or empathy, that we might expect a man to ask a woman, especially a plain or ugly woman, as if no courtesy is owed. Together, they suggest a monster movie, the disfigured creature and the beautiful woman, though the monster in this movie is very much her. Isserley sits in her van and she sees a possible target up the street. We cut close to Isserley in the van and we have what should be a standard horror scare: suddenly another man appears, right by the driver’s side window. We are not, however, fearful for her, but for him. He turns out to be a group of hoodlums who smash at her car, trying to get in, and Isserley coolly starts up her engine and drives away, barely paying them mind; if you’re a woman, you may well envy and wish for her unflinching nerves in such situations. Yet there’s also a frightening absence in this Isserley. A man attempts to rescue a drowning couple, while Isserley stands by. This is the tradition we expect: the man acts, the woman watches. The man fails in his task, and we expect Isserley to give him a comforting hug and reassure him that it’s okay. She brains him with a rock. The next variation is the most horrific, and perhaps the most disturbing scene in the movie. She drags the man’s body, nothing self-conscious in her bent over figure, ignoring entirely the weeping of the baby nearby: this woman is without any maternal feeling whatsoever, and gender makes a definite difference here: we have become accustomed to this inhumanity from men, but not from women.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

We are left to read these images however we can for some insight into Isserley, who is an uncompromisingly alien character. When we try to discern what’s there in a look of hers, there’s no possibility of thinking in terms of, say, her relation to her family, the great loves of her life, or her childhood, but exclusively that of an animal struggling to adapt – and yet without the pejorative quality in that word, animal. She has had like experiences, and yet they’re outside our ken, the experiences of alien life, an alien knowledge. She has been placed in a strange landscape of unknown life, and her experience mirrors ours as we watch this movie, lacking any comfort or intimacy we might have come to expect. This character remains distant enough, and this movie remains sufficiently opaque, that we might see these images as not simply connected to this specific character.

From “Director Jonathan Glazer on Under The Skin’s complex honesty” by Scott Tobias:

The Dissolve: This seems to be self-consciously playing with her [Scarlett Johansson’s] image. She’s an icon, like David Bowie is more than just an actor in The Man Who Fell To Earth. She has an otherworldly quality.

Glazer: Well, we use that for sure. We’re using how Scarlett’s objectified, the glamour of her image. And she’s using all of that as well. There’s a deconstruction going on.

In the novel, Isserley attempts to break away from her alien society, and she tries to consume various human foods, often without success. Here, we have Isserley breaking away and the first food she tries is a large slice of chocolate cake, which is given an endless close-up. She spits it out soon after trying the first piece, and this seems not just about Isserley, but a woman’s relationship to cake itself, a toxin that will annihilate her body, that will destroy her entirely. Isserley’s physical appearance is examined from every angle by her supervisor, The Bad Man (Jeremy McWilliams)3, and it’s like a colonel inspecting a recruit’s uniform for dust, or a Pygmalion overlooking his Galatea4. We can place endless Svengalis and Trilbys in these roles, idolmakers and their starlets made of clay. The men are beguiled by Isserley into her dark room, they follow as if in a trance, moving towards her as she undresses, as they sink step by step into a gelatinous liquid that’s like a quicksand. They lust at the sight of her, never actually touching the woman, and this sight entraps them. Isserley walks off, indifferent to their fate. They are kept alive and their bodies prepped and fattened, before their essence is drained, and the husk is left floating behind. We have a variation here on the serial killer who embalms his victims, but we also have a reversal of the starlet industry, where a woman briefly enraptures the world’s imagination, an idealization that is momentarily trapped in amber, and then she’s thrown away.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

I add here what might be seen as a predecessor to these entrapments, one incongruous and ridiculous, and that’s Monty Python’s “Seduced Milkmen” sketch. There, a woman lures a milkman into her house, where he finds himself locked in a room with a group of other milkmen, some grown old, and one now dead. A brief description is on wikipedia, “Seduced Milkmen”, and the sketch can be found at the moment on youtube, “Monty Python – Milkman”:

Isserley’s questions which she asks without any interest in the answer, and are simply part of her routine to string the victim along, can be likened to those of any pick-up artist, but they also suggest the endless questions any celebrity is asked, which are given a calculated answer, and which seemingly give no sense or depth to the person. We might take some of the questions Isserley asks, and those asked of Scarlett Johansson at various interviews, and their banality blends together:

“Am I keeping you from something?” “Where are you going?” “Where are you from?” “You have family here?” “Do you have a special connection with your twin?” “So you live alone?” “How are you different now?” “And you love it?” “Where do you call home?” “What do you love about living alone?” “So you all go out in your sneakers?” “What about your friends?” “So you don’t have any friends?” “How about a girlfriend?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “How old were you when you had your first real boyfriend?” “How old are you?” “What is the major difference between men and women?” “So don’t you get lonely then?” “You mean something fungal?” “Have you spoken to any skincare professionals about your interest in dermatology?”5

Isserley begins in the city and, after leaving behind her master, The Bad Man, goes to the country. This, I think, is obvious and necessary because the communion she seeks out is not with humanity, but what might be called the natural world, the untrammelled landscape outside humanity. She is already outside of humanity, for good and for ill: it’s why she walks by the wailing baby entirely indifferent, but it’s also why she doesn’t notice at all the disfigurement of The Nervous Man. She knows that there’s something which places this man outside of humanity as well, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is – the species is an undistinguished blur of strangeness to her. She brings The Nervous Man to her house, and she lets him sink into the pit. One of the aliens without his human covering (not The Bad Man, but one who will be part of the crew that will hunt down Isserley) is there at the pit, looking on. The alien blends with the image of Isserley, grouping her with them, and then she’s not with them at all. She walks down the stairs, and catches sight of herself in the mirror. We might guess she sees her alien surface, but also how alike she is to this man she just imprisoned. A fly buzzes against the glass, trapped, like the man in the pit. We see a close-up of her eye, something changes in her, and then the feet of Isserley and The Nervous Man together; she’s released him. She began in the white room, and now she is re-born in white, a long transitional moment in the fog.

Another man (Krystof Hadek) now gives her comfort and shelter. She leads men into a pit of liquid; when this man and Isserley reach a pool of water, he lifts her up and over it. They are on their way towards a castle, another touchstone of fables. They go back to his house to have sex, but something goes wrong: though Isserley is designed to attract men, she is not designed for actual sex, and her genitalia are for appearances only – there’s something missing. She flees into the forest, and where before we saw the dissolve which paired her with the alien, now an image blends her face with the trees. The Woodsman (Dave Acton) holds her down and starts to rape her, and Isserley looks up and finds consolation in the vast sky. The Woodsman sees the tear in her skin, and runs away. She holds her own head, entirely outside of her physical self, the beauty that is apart from her. This a movie where the human landscape is made alien, which moves further and further outside of human codes and judgements – the nude body of Scarlett Johansson becomes just one more nude body like that of the football player and The Nervous Man. The Woodsman returns and lights Isserley on fire. She began in a white room, was re-born in the white fog, and now she is re-born in the white snow-filled sky. This movie opens with a union, and in the closing moments, Isserley burns into ash, drifts into the sky, and unites with the pastoral world forever.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

A HEART THAT’S FULL UP LIKE A LANDFILL

This is a movie that emphasises film’s power outside of language, on creating a world of sound and images where things have nothing of the explicitness that we associate with words. Jonathan Glazer’s movie before this was Birth, and that felt as if it wanted to move towards something closer to this, something smaller, more intimate, more cryptic. That movie opened with an upbeat whimsical theme as a man jogged in a park, then collapsed in death. What followed was a sick twist on the kind of romantic comedy that might accompany such a buoyant piece of music, a boy telling a woman he’s the reincarnation of her dead husband after he finds a pile of their old love letters. The boy later reveals that he lied, that it’s all a hoax, but the woman now believes in the idea obsessively. If the obvious subtext of Under the Skin are images and fantasies of women, then the obvious subtext of Birth is the impossible fantasy of Hollywood romance, and movies in general, where all that is required is for you to belive. Anna (Nicole Kidman), the dead man’s wife, does believe in her movie’s fantasy, more and more fervently, and we see her as a disturbed obsessive, unhinged from reality. That the boy, Sean (Cameron Bright), is from a background that is commonly described as “working class” while Anna and her husband are wealthy lawyers who live in a coveted skyscraper apartment, only gives further emphasis to the point: somehow belief in these impossible Hollywood dreams of wealth and happiness is sufficient to bring us into such a life. This is a common part of any get rich pitch in any self-empowerment seminar or infommercial: do you believe in getting rich? Can you see a future where you are massively wealthy? Do you believe enough?

The power of the fantasy is such that it overwhelms both Anna and Sean. By the movie’s end, she runs away from her wedding because of this better possibility, while he, knowing best of all that the story is entirely false, returns to believing in it; we hear his voiceover of a letter he writes her, and it doesn’t suggest someone who no longer believes, but someone who’s had to stop expressing belief out of practicality and under pressure: “I’ve been seeing an expert. They sure talk a lot. They say I’ve been imagining things…They said they still haven’t figured out what was wrong with me, but the good thing is, nothing really happened. Well, I guess I’ll see you in another lifetime.” The voiceover plays as he gets his school photo taken, a smiling pose, a posed artifice like so many movies. The issue is not whether there should be any more school photos or Hollywood movies, but how much we should consider them close to anything like the true essence of life.

As said, Birth seemed too big for what was at its heart, with too many characters (the enviable supporting cast included Ted Levine, Arliss Howard, and Lauren Bacall) hanging on its vital center. The movie felt as if there should have been a culminating third act, when there wasn’t. Under the Skin avoids all this, paring away any superfluous parts of its story, keeping the focus on its lead, and slowing the pace down so that the final act follows naturally from what came before. Under the Skin derives its power from prolonged shots where the audience must simply pause and look, rather than move on to the next event or plot point, and we see this approach already in Birth‘s most bravura moment, when the camera stays on a close up of Anna for a minute and forty five seconds (from 26:15 to 28:00 on my copy) a little while after Sean has revealed that he’s the reincarnation of her dead husband:

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Under the Skin, the movie, makes the most of film as a non-verbal medium, something closer to painting or photography, something that too few films do, and making it a very different creature from Under the Skin, the novel by Michel Faber. The movie appears to take a lesson from Birth, viewing the obligations of narrative itself as an impediment to its effects, by extracting only a fragment of the book’s plot and growing it in a separate plot of soil. I think the book is a separate treasure that gets somewhat discounted in the reviews I’ve read of the movie. “The film is quite a departure from Michel Faber’s novel, which is grisly, chatty, borderline satirical,” is the description in David Edelstein’s Under the Skin Takes the Horror Genre in Infectiously Strange New Directions”, and I wish this gifted writer had included at least one adjective of praise. The book is science fiction and an easy read, so perhaps these things count against it, but its ease stems largely from being cleanly and clearly written, the narrative never weighed down by pretense. Isserley is enraptured by the beauty of the Scottish landscape, and its virtues are conveyed well, without faux lyricism. Where the movie is opaque, the book is explicit, but never head-thuddingly so, and though in other hands we might call the novel preachy, the story and characters are never contoured for the message and life is never made simpler than it is for the necessity of a thesis.

We might see the skill of the writing in the very first passages. Isserley appears to be looking for men, but she’s just looking for grades of meat. There’s a paragraph about the road that is especially well done – the hitchers are like the forest creatures run over by passing cars, thinking they are in a safe place, when they’re near nothing of the kind. An atmosphere is conveyed well of the Scottish countryside in the last paragraph (she hunts there, while the movie’s Isserley sticks to Glasgow), but it’s also the earth as seen by an alien, a primitive, uncivilized, newly born place:

Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.

At first glance, though, it could be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference. You’d think a lone hitcher on a country road would stand out a mile, like a distant monument or a grain silo; you’d think you would be able to appraise him calmly as you drove, undress him and turn him over in your mind well in advance. But Isserley had found it didn’t happen that way.

Driving through the Highlands of Scotland was an absorbing task in itself; there was always more going on than picture postcards allowed. Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the fields on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for long. Furry carcasses of unidentifiable forest creatures littered the asphalt, fresh every morning, each of them a frozen moment in time when some living thing had mistaken the road for its natural habitat.

Isserley, too, often ventured out at hours of such prehistoric stillness that her vehicle might have been the first ever. It was as if she had been set down on a world so newly finished that the mountains might still have some shifting to do and the wooded valleys might yet be recast as seas.

The novel’s Isserley might be one of the best and most memorable fictional characters I’ve come across in a while. Her appearance is very different from that of the movie’s, as well as an example of the book’s expertise at working in several modes at once without abrasion or discomfort. The central idea of the movie remains the same, with Isserley luring men to her car so they might be processed as food for her species. One key difference is that in the book, Isserley’s species is not bipedal, but a furred race which navigates on all fours with a powerful tail. Various surgeries have been made on her so she might walk on two legs and have human form. She is in almost constant pain when upright – the swish swish walk on heels that the movie’s Isserley does in the mall would be impossible for the book’s. This Isserley regards her human form as a horrible, humilating disfigurement. Her appearance features two striking physical details. There are the massive eyes of her species which have not been corrected by surgery, so she must wear glasses several inches thick to make their size appear to be a distortion of the lens. The engineers have also been crude and direct about what might attract men, so her own breasts have been sheared off, and massive human teats been implanted. At the same time, neither she nor anyone else in her species has any astuteness about human fashion sense, so we have oversized glasses, rather dowdy clothes, and a blouse with a plunging neckline. Isserley is both a frightening serial killer and utterly ridiculous in appearance.

The book uses more practical mechanics for the capture of these men, nothing like the magical darkness of Isserley’s house in the movie. After she’s certain from their conversation that the hitcher has no family or mate that might notice they’ve gone missing, she flips a switch and needles in the seat jump up and pierce their body, injecting them with an alien sedative called icpathua, and then she takes them to a farm where others of her species process them into food. We get some sense of Isserley’s comical look from two good descriptions in the book from two different hitchers. Details that might need explaining are that her short legs are, of course, a result of being from a quadrupedal species, that she has to blast the heat in the car because her missing fur makes her feel the cold acutely, and that the bodies of her species sweat far more than ours do, something that Isserley’s always does excessively in her excitement in the moments before she injects her passengers with icpathua. Description one, from the first hitcher:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny – like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. Funny how a lot of women with the best tits were really really short. This girl obviously knew she had a couple of ripe ones, the way she had them sitting pretty on the scoop of a low-cut top. That’s why this car was heated like an oven, of course: so she could wear a skimpy black top and air her boobs for all to see – for him to see.

The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows – no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. Still, with tits like that …

They were really odd, actually, those hands. Bigger than you’d think they’d be, to look at the rest of her, but narrow too, like … chicken feet. And tough, like she’d done hard labour with them, maybe worked in a factory. He couldn’t see her legs properly, she was wearing those horrible flared seventies trousers that were back in fashion – shiny green, for Christ’s sake – and what looked like Doc Martens, but there was no disguising how short her legs were. Still, those tits … They were … like … they were like … He didn’t know what to compare them to. They looked pretty fucking good, nestled next to one another there, with the sun shining on them through the windscreen.

Never mind the tits, though: what about the face? Well, he couldn’t see it just now; she had to actually turn towards him for him to see it, because of her haircut. She had thick, fluffy hair, mouse-brown, hanging down straight so he couldn’t even see her cheeks when she was facing front. It was tempting to imagine a beautiful face hidden behind that hair, a face like a pop singer or an actress, but he knew different. In fact, when she’d turned towards him, her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was also wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

She was a weird one all right. Half Baywatch babe, half little old lady.

Description two, from the middle of the book:

Her hair was matted, with streaks of something that looked like axle grease slicked through it, and tufts sticking out at odd angles. Here was a woman who hadn’t looked at herself in a mirror for a while, that was for sure. She smelled – stank, really, if he could be so judgemental – of fermenting sweat and seawater.

Her clothes were filthy with dried mud. She’d fallen, maybe, or had some sort of accident. Should he ask her if she was all right? She might be offended if he commented on the state of her clothing. She might even think he was trying to harass her sexually. It was so hard to be friendly, in any genuinely human way, towards female strangers if you were a male. You could be courteous and pleasant, which wasn’t the same thing at all; it was the way you’d treat the staff at the Job Centre. You couldn’t tell a strange woman that you liked her earrings, or that her hair was beautiful – or ask her how she came to have mud on her clothes.

The more he looked at this girl, the weirder she appeared. Her green velveteen trousers were very seventies retro-chic, if you disregarded the muddy knees, but she definitely didn’t have the legs of a nightclub babe. Trembling slightly under the thin fabric, so short they barely reached the pedals, they might have been the legs of a cerebral palsy sufferer. He turned his head to glance through the space between his seat and hers, half expecting to see a foldable wheelchair wedged into the back. There was only an old anorak, a garment he could well imagine her wearing. Her boots were like Doc Martens, but even chunkier, like Boris Karloff clogs.

Strangest of all, though, was her skin. Every part of her flesh that he could see, except for her pale smooth breasts, had the same peculiar texture to it: a downy look, like the hide of a cat recently spayed, just beginning to grow back the fur. She had scars everywhere: along the edges of her hands, along her collarbones, and especially on her face. He couldn’t see her face now, hidden as it was behind the tangled mane of her hair, but he’d got a pretty good glimpse of it before, and there was scarring along the line of her jaw, her neck, her nose, under her eyes. And then the corrective lenses. They must have the biggest magnification known to optometry, for her eyes to look that big.

We have perhaps here the biggest difference from the movie, one perhaps impossible to transfer over. Each pick-up of a hitch-hiker has the same structure, with us first hearing the thoughts in Isserley’s head as she evaluates the new victim and gives him a lift, then we shift to the thoughts of the hitcher. As the conversations go on, some men are allowed to simply get off at their destination because they reveal a wife or girlfriend is waiting for them, and therefore they’ll be noticed when they go missing. There is no justice to this: easily the most sympathetic of the hitchers, the man who makes the observations in the second excerpt, is sedated even though he has a girlfriend – he doesn’t start talking to Isserley because he doesn’t want to cause her any fear. Another hitcher carries a knife with him and attempts to rape her, and this man has more of a chance of escaping than the kind, silent man. She picks up louts, but good men as well, a brutal dog trainer followed by a melancholy figure devoted to his dog; both end up at the farm. The reader is allowed no satisfaction that any rough justice is done.

That Isserley traps and sedates a series of men, often sympathetic, after which they’re held captive in inhuman conditions and eventually killed, should alienate the reader from her, but it doesn’t. One reason is that Faber never attempts to be sentimental, or plead sympathy for this protagonist, but simply presents her as she is. She is placed as part of a larger alien society that is briefly but sufficiently detailed, and the comic aspect is this: though Isserley has contempt for the primitives of earth, her culture mirrors entirely that of contemporary British society, now. On her own world, she was a beauty born to a low caste, and she’s still bitter about all the false promises made to her by higher born men, instead being left behind to work deep underground in the abysmal conditions of the oxygen factories of her home planet, her only escape this job for which she had to suffer such disfiguring surgeries:

What about all the men who’d promised to keep her safe as she neared the grading age? ‘The Estates? A beautiful girl like you? Just let them try, Iss, and I’ll have a word with my father.’ Spoilt little poseurs, the lot of them. Fuck them, fuck them all.

But then no linguist would ever have applied for her job, that was for sure. Only desperate people with no prospects except being dumped in the New Estates would have considered it.

And even then, only if they were out of their minds.

She had been totally crazy, looking back on it. Deliriously insane. But it had all turned out for the best, after all. The best decision she’d ever made. A very small personal sacrifice, really, if it avoided a lifetime buried in the Estates – a brutishly short lifetime, by all accounts.

In fact, whenever she found herself grieving over what had been done to her once-beautiful body in order for her to be sent here, she reminded herself what people who’d lived in the New Estates for any length of time looked like. Decay and disfigurement were obviously par for the course down there. Maybe it was the overcrowding, or the bad food or the bad air or the lack of medical care, or just the inevitable result of living underground. But there was an unmistakable ugliness about Estate trash, an almost subhuman taint.

Most crucially, Faber never has Isserley transcend her society’s perspectives. She despises the system she’s in, but she does not question it. She never stops seeing the sentient species of earth as primitives, and in one of the novel’s most insightful touches, Isserley and her species refer to themselves not by some alien name, but as human, and it’s the humans of earth who are given the alien name, vodsels. The following is one excerpt of Isserley’s observations:

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn6.

The member of her society who has transcended its attitudes, who is able to offer a critical perspective, is Amlis Vess, the son of the head of the corporation that runs the meat processing operation. He visits the Scottish farm where the processing operation takes place, and she is very attracted to him – attracted to his rich fur, his regal stature, all the marks of privilege:

Like all of Isserley’s race (except Isserley and Esswis [a male alien on the farm who’s also had surgery in order to appear human], of course) he stood naked on all fours, his limbs exactly equal in length, all of them equally nimble. He also had a prehensile tail, which, if he needed his front hands free, he could use as another limb to balance on, tripod-style. His breast tapered seamlessly into a long neck, on which his head was positioned like a trophy. It came to three points: his long spearhead ears and his vulpine snout. His large eyes were perfectly round, positioned on the front of his face, which was covered in soft fur, like the rest of his body.

In all these things he was a normal, standard-issue human being, no different from the workman standing behind him, watching him nervously.

But he was different.

He was almost freakishly tall, for one thing. His head was at the level of her breast; were he to be surgically made vertical, as she had been, he would tower over her. Wealth and privilege must have excused him from the typically stunted growth of Estate males like the one who was guarding him now; he was like a giant, but slender with it, not massive or lumpish. His colouring was unusually varied (gossips sometimes suggested it wasn’t natural): dark brown on his back, shoulders and flanks, pure black on his face and legs, pure white on his breast. The fur was impossibly lustrous, too, especially on his chest, where it was thicker, almost straggly. In musculature he was lean, with just enough bulk to carry his large frame; his shoulder-blades were startlingly prominent under their satiny layer of fur. But it was his face that was most remarkable: of the males Isserley worked with, there was not one who didn’t have coarse hair, bald patches, discolorations and unsightly scarring on the face. Amlis Vess had a soft down of flawless black from the tips of his ears to the curve of his throat, as if lovingly tooled in black suede by an idealistic craftsman. Deeply set in this perfection of blackness, his tawny eyes shone like illuminated amber. He breathed, preparing to speak.

The book is about the objectification of women7, but it’s also about objectification itself. She is the only woman who is part of the processing operation at the farm and she looks upon the other men and a physical appearance marked by rough and poor living with revulsion, because these are markers of a lower caste, even as she is able to perceive the vast process which brought them all to this place. The vodsels are fodder for this industry, and they are fodder as well:

Isserley’s arrival in the dining hall caused much guttural murmuring among the men. They obviously hadn’t expected her to reappear so soon after her humiliation, but that was because they were stupid and understood nothing. Wouldn’t they just love to have had a bit longer to gossip about her! What a stir her breakdown and her expulsion from the Processing Hall must have made in their stagnant little world! How the legend would have grown if she’d hidden away for days in her cottage, paralysed with shame, until at last she was so weak with hunger she was forced to crawl down to them! Well, she refused to give them the satisfaction. She would tough it out, show them what she was made of.

She cast her eyes disdainfully over the entire herd of them. Compared to Amlis Vess, they were scabrous grotesques, pea-brained savages. She should never have felt shame about her own deformity; she was no uglier than they were, surely, and infinitely better bred.

Isserley looked down at him, as he grinned back at her with decayed teeth and a glisten of gravy on his snout. Yet despite her distaste, she understood all of a sudden that he was harmless, an impotent drudge, a slave, a disposable means to an end. Imprisoned underground, he was living out an existence scarcely better than what he would have known if he’d stayed in the Estates. To be brutally honest, all these men were falling apart, hair by hair and tooth by tooth, like over-used pieces of equipment, like tools bought cheap for a job that would outlast them. While Isserley roamed the airy spaces of her unrestricted domain, they remained trapped below the barns of Ablach, labouring mindlessly, grubbing in tungsten-lit gloom, breathing stale air, eating whatever offal was too gross to be of value to their masters. Amid much fanfare about escape and pioneering, Vess Incorporated had simply dug them out of one hole and buried them in another.

One of her co-workers has a skin condition, “he had some sort of disgusting skin ailment that made half his face look like mouldy fruit,” and Isserley refers to him forever afterwards as the mouldy man, the way a man in another novel might refer to a woman as french smalltits, or some such thing. When Vess suggests the possibility of looking beyond these things, she rejects it, one more opinion of Vess that he’s privileged to have, the way the wealthy can declare that money doesn’t matter:

‘Of course I can see what’s been done to you, but what I’m really interested in is the inner person,’ he pressed on.

‘Oh please, Amlis: spare me this shit,’ groaned Isserley, looking away from him as the tears squirmed out of her eyes and ran down one cheek to disappear inside the ugly stoma of her mutilated ear.

Isserley is drawn to Vess because he is high born, yet she is repelled by the know nothingness of her own life that this high born man has. Vess does not manage to persuade her to take his view, but rather she despises him for having the luxury of this opinion – only a scion from the wealthiest class has the ability to laze around and examine the system. Vess’s opinion is, of course, entirely right, and yet we identify utterly with Isserley and how his righteousness is so connected with a particular pet cause, rather than remedying the immediate realities of a life like hers. He has the privilege of not having to partake in the brutalities of the system, while she must, and she despises the fact that he cannot see that participation in the system has nothing to do with moral choices, and everything to do with practical need. He has the luxury of having the power to change the system, where she feels as if she is only a prisoner within it. “That meat you’re eating,” Amlis Vess says to her of the food they process, “is the body of a creature that lived and breathed just like you and me.”:

With Amlis’s words still ringing in her ears, Isserley took courage, as she had done last time, by focusing on his upper-class accent, his velvety diction groomed by wealth and privilege. Deliberately, she recalled being petted and then discarded by the Elite; she pictured the authorities who’d decided she would be more suited to a life in the Estates, men with accents just like Amlis Vess’s. She invited that accent in, listening to the sharp chord of resentment it struck deep inside her, letting it reverberate.

A few fragments from their conversations together:

‘I had to see for myself what’s going on here,’ he growled.

Isserley tried to raise herself again, and covered her failure with a sigh of condescension.

‘There’s nothing so unusual going on here,’ she said. ‘Just … supply and demand.’ She spoke these last words in a sing-song, as if they were an eternal, inseparable pairing like night and day, male and female.

‘Well, I’ve confirmed my worst fears,’ he went on, disregarding her claim. ‘This whole trade is based on terrible cruelty.’

‘You don’t know what cruelty is,’ she said, feeling all the places on and inside her body where she had been mutilated. How lucky this cosseted young man was, to have a ‘worst fear’ that concerned the welfare of exotic animals rather than any horrors he himself might have to face in the struggle for survival.

‘You know,’ he said, almost dreamily, ‘I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss.’

‘Yes,’ snapped Isserley, ‘Like why some people are born into a life of lazing around and philosophizing, and others are shoved into a hole and told to fucking get busy.’

The processing of the humans, or vodsels, is exactly like that of any factory farm. The reader is warned that the following passages involve content more disturbing than anything in the movie adaptation. The alien Unser is their butcher:

The Cradle, constructed from pieces of farm equipment, was a masterpiece of specialized design. Its base was the cannibalized mechanism of an earthmover, welded to a stainless-steel drinking trough. Mounted on top, chest-high to a human, was a two-metre segment of a grain chute, artfully beaten into an amended shape so that its sharp edges were curled harmlessly in on themselves. Gleaming and elegant like a giant gravy boat, the chute was being tilted mechanically on its unseen fulcrum, assuming a perfectly horizontal position.

The person adjusting the balance of the Cradle was Ensel, smug in his responsibility of personally assisting the Chief Processor; his two cronies were engaged in the less precise task of undressing the vodsel, lying nearby.

Real music, human music, was being piped into the hall by loudspeakers nestled in the walls. Soft singing and the strumming of instruments imparted a reassuring flavour of home, a pervasive smell of melodies half remembered from childhood. They hissed and hummed soothingly.

‘Careful, careful,’ muttered Unser as the men scrabbled clumsily at the vodsel’s ankles to remove tight woollen socks. An animal’s shanks were close to where its faeces would fall once it was in the pens; any lacerations would be liable to fester.

Isserley strained to see, but Unser’s big wrists and the twisting motion of his fingers obscured the view as he carved out the vodsel’s tongue. Blood began to gurgle out onto the vodsel’s cheeks as Unser turned to drop his tools on the tray with a clatter. Unhesitatingly he snatched up an electrical appliance resembling a large star-point screwdriver and, squinting with concentration, guided it into the vodsel’s mouth. Flashes of light glowed through the gaps in Unser’s nimble fingers as he searched out the incontinent blood vessels and fried them shut with a crackling buzz.

He was already busy sluicing out the vodsel’s mouth with a suction pump by the time the smell of burning flesh had permeated the air. The vodsel coughed: the first real evidence that, far from being dead, it was suffering from nothing more serious than icpathuasi.

‘That’saboy,’ murmured Unser, tickling the Adam’s apple to make the creature swallow. ‘Uhr-rhum.’

As soon as he was satisfied with the state of the animal’s mouth, Unser turned his attention to the genitals. Taking up a clean instrument, he sliced open the scrotal sac and, with rapid, delicate, almost trembling incisions of his scalpel, removed the testicles. It was a much more straightforward job than the tongue; it took perhaps thirty seconds. Before Isserley had registered what had happened, Unser had already cauterized the bleeding and was sewing the scrotum closed with an expert hand.

The experiences of Isserley do not make her more sympathetic to the brutal experiences of the vodsels, but less so. She enjoys being superior to them, and the anger she feels towards the system itself and what it’s done to her she channels against the vodsels. When a vodsel has his throat sliced in front of her, a sentimental type might expect Isserley to be aghast or scream in horror, but she cries out in joyful catharsis. That the powerless find the only pleasure they have in dominating those with even less power is not, to say the least, an uncommon theme in history:

So intently was the vodsel striving now to retrieve his memory of Isserley that he seemed not to notice something being lowered towards his forehead that resembled the nozzle of a petrol pump, attached to the base of the Cradle by a long flexible cable. Unser touched the metal tip of the instrument to the unwrinkled flesh of the vodsel’s brow, and squeezed the handle. There was an almost imperceptible dimming of the lights in the building. The vodsel’s eyes blinked just once as the current travelled through his brain and down the filament of his spine. A subtle plume of smoke curled up from a darkening smudge on his brow.

Unser yanked the chin up to expose the neck. With two graceful flicking motions of his wrist, he slashed open the arteries in the vodsel’s neck, then stood back as a jet of blood gushed out, steaming hot and startlingly red against the silvery trough.

‘Yes!’ screamed Isserley involuntarily. ‘Yes!’

That this is pleasure in a violence re-directed, that she wishes violence, unremittingly cruel violence, on those who have power over her, is made explicit in one of the last chapters, when she speaks of her surgeons:

She crawled out of bed, crippled as usual. What heaven it would be to get revenge on the surgeons who’d done this to her! She’d never even seen their faces: she’d been drugged into oblivion by the time they’d stuck their knives in. And now they were probably boasting to Vess Incorporated how much they’d learned from their mistakes, how there was no comparison between the miracles they could perform now and the crude experiments that had been Esswis [a male alien on the farm who’s also had surgery in order to appear human] and Isserley. In a fair world, she would be given the opportunity, before she died, to tie those surgeons to a slab and do a bit of experimenting of her own. They could watch, tongueless, as she carved their genitals away. To keep their noise down, she’d give them big chunks of their own severed tails to chew on. Their anuses would clench as she penetrated their spines with iron skewers. Their eyes would blink blood as she sculpted brave new faces for them.

There is no Nervous Man in the book, and it is not Isserley who releases any vodsels, but Amlis. In fact, it is Isserley who helps to hunt down these vodsels and kill them, and she takes pride in her ability to do so. That the gesture of freeing these vulnerable naked vodsels out into the open is an entirely futile one, is to be expected from privileged creatures like Amlis who have no practical sense, and who are enraptured by the virtuousness of their gestures. At the very same time, Isserley knows there is something unnecessarily brutal in this life, one lacking in an essential quality even though her own language may have no word for it. Amlis and Isserley visit the prison in which the various hitchers are kept before they are processed, and one of them writes something in the dirt:

‘Look!’ Amlis urged.

Isserley watched, disturbed, as the vodsel scrawled a five-letter word with great deliberation, even going to the trouble of fashioning each letter upside down, so that it would appear right-way-up for those on the other side of the mesh.

‘No-one told me they had a language,’ marvelled Amlis, too impressed, it seemed, to be angry. ‘My father always describes them as vegetables on legs.’

‘It depends on what you classify as language, I guess,’ said Isserley dismissively. The vodsel had slumped behind his handiwork, head bowed in submission, eyes wet and gleaming.

‘But what does it mean?’ persisted Amlis.

Isserley considered the message, which was M E R C Y. It was a word she’d rarely encountered in her reading, and never on television. For an instant she racked her brains for a translation, then realized that, by sheer chance, the word was untranslatable into her own tongue; it was a concept that just didn’t exist.

Isserley does not want to try to pronounce this word for Amlis, because she feels this act would debase her:

She considered trying to pronounce the strange word with a contortion of her lips and a frown on her brow, as if she were being asked to reproduce a chicken’s cackle or a cow’s moo. Then, if Amlis asked her what it meant, she could honestly say that there was no word for it in the language of human beings. She opened her lips to speak, but realized just in time that this would be a very stupid mistake. For her to speak the word at all dignified it with the status of being a word in the first place; Amlis would no doubt go into ecstasy over the vodsels’ ability to link a pattern of scrawled symbols with a specific sound, however guttural and unintelligible. At a stroke, she would be dignifying the vodsels, in his eyes, with both writing and speech.

Shortly afterwards, in perhaps the book’s most powerful scene, Isserley gives a ride to the hitchhiker who rapes her, and she pleads for this same concept. We have here again the book’s casual, expert use of a variety of tones, none of which undercut the other; the horror of the scene alongside the comic mispronunciation which is also a heartbreaking plea for some relief from not just this moment, but her whole existence:

Without warning, he grabbed her elbow and pulled it upwards. Isserley didn’t have time to tense her muscles into a characteristic vodsel shape, and her arm bent freely at several joints, a zig-zag of unmistakably human angles. The hitcher did not appear to notice. This, more than anything else so far, filled Isserley with nauseous terror.

Once she was standing, the hitcher nudged her further along the car until she was against the bonnet.

‘Turn around,’ he said.

She obeyed, and he immediately grasped her green velvety trousers and tore them down to her knees with a single jolt.

‘Jesus,’ he growled from behind her. ‘You been in a car accident?’

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sorry.’

For a heady moment she thought he was discouraged, but then she felt the flat of his hand on her back, pushing her forward onto the car’s bonnet.

Desperately, she searched for the right word, the word that might make him stop. It was a word she knew, but had only ever seen written – in fact, only this morning, a vodsel had spelled it out. She’d never heard it spoken.

‘Murky,’ she pleaded.

Isserley escapes this by knocking out the man’s eyes through the powerful distorted arms of her race, but there is no happy end for her. She and Amlis never draw close into anything like sexual union or love, and he returns to his home planet. Her work exhausts her, and though she does not acknowledge it, her work is slowly destroying her: again and again in the book, tears fall from her eyes, and she’s unable to account for why. She lives in a morally indifferent universe where the kindest of souls end up trapped in the cages of her farm, and yet the book’s perspective is not itself indifferent to the fates of its characters. We see the juxtaposition of the two in the book’s ending, where a gesture of consideration leads to her destruction. Isserley stops for a hitcher whose wife is pregnant and he urges her to speed up, and she does so, but she is as clumsy at driving as she is at other human behaviors, and the car swerves off the road into a tree. The hitcher is thrown from the wreck and badly injured, while the steering column slices into Isserley, destroying her human bosom:

She looked down. Her green velvet trousers were sprinkled with broken glass and saturated with dark blood, and a twisted wedge of metal was taking up all the space where she would have expected her knees to be. She felt very little pain, and she guessed this must be because her spine was shattered. The crescent of the steering wheel had penetrated her breasts, leaving her torso uninjured. Her neck, though, felt better than it had for years, and this realization jerked a hysterical sob of laughter and grief from her. Something warm and gelatinous, trapped inside her top and Pennington’s pullover, slid down her abdomen and into her lap. She shuddered in revulsion and fear.

The Isserleys of the novel and movie both have a devotion to the earth’s landscape, perhaps the only love they can feel deeply, the only one undamaged by malice or distrust for the book’s protagonist. She joins this world in the movie as her body burns to ash and drifts into the sky, and the novel’s Isserley achieves the same transcendence through self-annihilation in what is probably the book’s best moment, an ending for this essay which I cannot improve on:

Isserley removed the spectacles and dropped them into her lap, where they landed with a patter of windscreen glass. She blinked, wondering why things were still out of focus. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her view through the shattered windscreen cleared.

Isserley checked the top of the dashboard, where Yns [an engineer], at the same time as he’d set up the icpathua network, had installed the other little alteration to the car’s original design: the button for the aviir. Unlike the icpathua connections, which involved fragile electrics and hydraulics that had obviously been damaged in the accident, the connection between the dashboard button and the cylinder of aviir was one simple, sturdy tube, waiting only for a squirt of something foreign into the oily liquid.

The aviir would blow her car, herself, and a generous scoop of earth into the smallest conceivable particles. The explosion would leave a crater in the ground as big and deep as if a meteorite had fallen there.

And she? Where would she go?

The atoms that had been herself would mingle with the oxygen and nitrogen in the air. Instead of ending up buried in the ground, she would become part of the sky: that was the way to look at it. 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. When it rained, she would be there in the spectral arch that spanned from firth to ground. She would help to wreathe the fields in mists, and yet would always be transparent to the stars. She would live forever. All it took was the courage to press one button, and the faith that the connection had not been broken.

She reached forward a trembling hand.

‘Here I come,’ she said.

(All images from Under the Skin copyright A24 Films and associated producers; images from Birth copyright New Line Cinema.)

(On July 27, 2014, some edits for aesthetics, grammar, and clarity were made; footnote #4 was added, as was a new footnote #1, on the name of the film’s protagonist; the section on how Isserley sees her co-workers only in terms of their physicality was added as well. On August 25th, 2014, the section on Monty Python’s “Seduced Milkmen” was added.)

FOOTNOTES

1 Though it’s never said in the movie, a number of sources state the protagonist’s name as “Laura”, such as Grantland‘s “‘Skin’ Deep: Jonathan Glazer, Scarlett Johansson, and the Incurious State of Sci-Fi in Hollywood” by Sean Fennessey – “Glazer’s movie follows Laura, an alien played by a bewigged Scarlett Johansson” – and The Dissolve‘s review, “Under the Skin” by Scott Tobias: “Glazer’s main character—now named “Laura,” and played by Scarlett Johansson—reveals nothing of herself directly.”

2 Though I originally thought this first woman was simply a human The Bad Man had killed so they could use her clothes, I think this observation from SpaceMonkey23101 in “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75, is very solid, and in fact the best interpretation.

SpaceMonkey23101 (link):

I like to think that the first woman (who Scarlett gets her first set of clothes from) is her predecessor, and that she died by committing suicide. This is why she sheds a tear during the scene where Scarlett undresses her. She did it by drowning herself in the ocean, since she had seen so many men go into the black pool, and her limited intellect could only conceive of that as a method of suicide. She was driven to do this by her guilt for what she had done, luring so many innocent men to their deaths. It shows that she achieved the same sense of compassion that Scarlett does during the film. It basically turns the film into a much more optimistic story, since it suggests that the drones always develop empathy. This is what her supervisor (motor bike guy) is checking for when he’s staring at her so intently in her house. He is searching, in a strange alien way, for a sense of empathy or compassion within her. It’s almost as if the drones always fail because maybe living beings always grow towards compassion. It actually kind of suggests an ultimate – almost spiritual – morality and justice behind the film. Just a thought.

dalong75 (link):

Love it.

8th_Dynasty (link):

This is pretty close to my interpretation as well – however, and maybe it was just my eyesight, but I took the first girl to be “the same model Alien”, having the same skin. The Alien of our story that we watched was a sort of replicated replacement to pick up where the first one left off after she ultimately started to feel emotions. Sort of like a defective model that will work for a certain amount of time before breaking down and the Motorcycle Boss was constantly checking for signs of inevitable failure.

I feel like that first female character was also played by Scarlett [though there is a strong resemblance, the girl on the floor of the white room is played by Lynsey Taylor Mackay].

3 McWilliams is actually a “world champion motorcycle ace.” The short profile, “McWilliams is ‘bad man on mission for Scarlett Johansson'” details his background.

The name of this character as well as The Woodsman I got from “Under The Skin: Casting”, an interview with the movie’s casting director, Kathleen Crawford.

4 Again, “Under the Skin- Movie discussion including looking at the novel that inspired it”, a reddit thread by dalong75, contains valuable insights on this matter, from tesla86, EnsignMorituri, and dalong75.

tesla86 (link):

I was thinking about this movie for some time after seeing it, the affect of any momentous movie wether good or bad i might add.

I was particularly drawn to the ‘inspection’ scene, it was as though they (the aliens) are drone-like creatures, with the Motorcyclist as a soldier bee inspecting the worker bee (Johnansson) even the way ‘he’ articulates and postures around her is akin to their behaviour. Just a thought but the motorbikes themselves are quite bee/wasp like; driving handles = antennae , fuel tank = thorax, engine hums like wings etc

EnsignMorituri (link):

Absolutely. I think the closeup of the ant reflects the colony insect theme as well. To use a wasp or bee in that scene would have been too on the nose.

dalong75 (link):

Good point. I liked how mechanical it was. A simple four point inspection of her. Not at all how humans would inspect each other. Also perhaps looking for any breaks in her skin.

5 Questions were taken from “The Scarlett Johansson Interview” by Alex Bilmes, “Scarlett Johansson Interview” by Holly Millea, and “Scarlett Johansson 2.0: Glamour’s May Cover Star on Finally Knowing What She Needs in a Relationship” by Logan Hill.

6 These terms of alien vocabulary are never given an explanation.

7 The book is more explicit about this than the movie, as seen in these excerpts from a conversation Isserley has with one hitcher:

‘You know what gets me?’ he said, slightly more animated now.

‘No, what gets you?’ Isserley was sagging in relief, gratefully feeling the air grow less dense, the molecules moving more calmly.

‘Them supermodels,’ he said.

Isserley thought first of sophisticated automobiles, then thought he must mean the animated drawings which flickered on television early in the mornings: stylized females flying through space wearing elbow-length gloves and thigh-high boots. Just in time, as she opened her mouth to speak, she remembered the true meaning of the term: she’d glimpsed one of these extraordinary creatures on the news once.

‘What mystifies you?’ said Isserley, quite lost.

‘Where’s the tits on ’em, that’s what I want to know!’ he exclaimed, cupping one huge hand in front of his own chest. ‘Supermodels, and they got no tits! How’s that work?’

‘I don’t know who decides these things,’ conceded Isserley miserably, as the atmosphere in the cabin swarmed once more.

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