Under the Skin Jonathan Glazer (2013; UK) Scarlett Johansson
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema, Newcastle 21st July 2021: ticket: £7
Under the gaze of the White Van Woman
Jonathon Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ looks like a film project that started life as an installation and then stalled. As a realised film it never picks up steam. At the point where we see the third and last of the impassive male figures descend into the pool of gloup, all that’s left in the scenario is surrender to a formulaic plot and stylistic conceit. Glazer’s film installation is no more than a one image-concept, constructed for the gaze.
The ‘gaze’ renders its object as a pure spectacle of association. The gaze does not so much understand or interpret spectacle as associate spectacle with something – in a way working something like an advert. The associative connection with what is witnessed might be provided by a socio-cultural explanation – these fireworks celebrate Bastille Day: or the spectator may draw on their own psychic associative resouces to explain what they witness – perhaps the water is a symbol of renewal or rebirth. Once the subject of gaze has an associative explanation, either given or hazarded, gaze is content. It has an objectified answer. The gaze tends to separate viewer and object, they are discrete and distanced from each other.
‘Seeing’ as a concept, is different. It connects the onlooker with immediate effect to what is witnessed. Seeing involves subjective meaning, a direct connection with object; it is immanent; it is an extrapolation of the self into the experience. In seeing the distinction between the see-er and what is seen can lose its binery nature.
Glazer’s movie is made for the ‘gaze’. The strategic underpinning of the script is that Glazer is coy about the associative signification of his imagery. Is the imagery put togather to invoke a proto-feminist satire or a neo sci-fi allegory…or what….? The question of meaning is perhaps redundant. Mysterium. ‘Under the Skin’ like Bill Viola installations, such as ‘Ascension’or ‘Fire Woman’ exploit powerful imagery, invoking elemental forces, delinked from any context, detached from signification, devised so as to open out to the psychic resonance of the viewer. Like adverts they fill out the gaze, and press on the psyche of the viewer to construct their own relationship to the material. There is no meaning, as such, rather, psychic association. Interesting to note that in most of these forms the images are all composite ‘tricks’. We are gazing on variegated visual stimulae drawn from dfferent sources which it has only been possible to bring togather, in spectacular effect, with the invention of sophisticated digital editing software.
The opening sequence sees an incoming arrival event, that may be from outer space. It doesn’t matter. This event transposes into a woman (Scarlett Johanson – SJ) and an accompanying motor cyclist. This latter has a aetiological resemblance to the motorbike angels used by Jean Cocteau to create an appropriate and counterbalancing sense of menace in ‘Orphee’. The woman quickly commandeers a house, finds herself a nice white van, and then proceeds from the interior of the van to look for her victims. Her gaze is our gaze as she searches the crowd looking for a man to entice back to her place for a cup of coffee. Once trapped in her lair, our gaze follows them as they advance towards the receding figure of SJ, stepping down the long incline into a water like liquid that finally absorbs them in a pool of homogenous gloop. And that’s their lot. They are victims of our gaze. There is no meaning, only association. They float before us, drowned probably dead, perhaps pickled. In cool detachment we can only watch.
And that’s all there is to Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’. It’s a one trick pony with two types of camera work. In the van, the camera serves the role of analogous stand in for SJ. We see what she sees as her gaze seeks a victim out of the crowd of faces. We are rendered the vicarious thrill and accompaning tensions of the ‘fateful chase’ of the serial killer. The analogous camera is effective but derivitive, recalling similar sequences found in splat fests such as: Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer. In the pool sections of the movie, there are three I think, the camera work reproduces the types of effects achieved by Bill Viola: the camera is caste to reproduce the effect of pure gaze. It is an abstracted ajudgemental mechanism with which we collude, that records the terminal events cooly without emotion. Without meaning or context it engages only our powers of association: as if….
Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ would have been better served by maintaining its installation character, refusing to take any other form but the imperative of the gaze. Glazer seems not have understood that psychic association per se eludes signification and meaning, and that without some radical shift of frame, installation technology cannot be easily married to the idea of plot. Perhaps not understanding this or bowing to pressures from finance, Glazer’s scenario with a flick of scripting switch flips to a plot mechanism half way through. Unsurprisingly, he is unable to find a structure that involves a paradigm shift, a line of development that intensifies, reveals, explicates, exposes, or radically shifts framing of his material. All he is able to produce is a piece of ‘bolt on’ formulaic plotting that exploits every worn out familiar trope of the feminist scifi genre: SJ falling for a ‘man’, realising she cannot do this, and finally in desperation resorting to a ‘chase’ scene where SJ is persued thorugh the woods by a wild mad rapist before finally self immolating. At its conclusion “Under the Skin” becomes completely silly.
As it was in the beginning so it is at the end of ‘Under the Skin’ Failing to understand the nature or the form of his core materail, Glazer has taken us on a trip to nowhere. Under the gaze of SJ his film might be a sci-fi caper, a feminist allegory or an idea in the eye of the beholder. Watching through the last long 40 minutes it seemed simply an enigma wrapped in a stylistic banality.