Analysis – Under The Skin as a critique of a society obsessed with body image

Scarlett Johansson in beguiling sci-fi Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson in beguiling sci-fi Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is currently filling multiplexes alongside Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But she’s also planting her footprints all over the indie scene with Jonathan Glazer’s erotic sci-fi Under The Skin, which is attracting rave reviews from the critical fraternity.

I thought it was mostly pretentious rubbish, but there was something that stuck out to me as interesting. Amidst its navel-gazing and excessively long shots, there’s a message that emerges about body image and the perception of sex that is definitely worth examining.

Note: Do not read past this point until you’ve seen the film.

 

ScarJo goes nude

A huge amount of the pre-release publicity for Under The Skin focused, rather lecherously, on the fact that Scarlett Johansson was going full-frontal for some of the intimate scenes. On the surface, this is simply a case of resorting to desperate measures to promote a difficult movie.

However, the choice of Scarlett Johansson as the central character is actually remarkably shrewd. Depending on who you talk to, she is the sexiest woman in the world – someone that would appear on the sexual fantasy lists of many men.

This plays into the central conceit of the film, in which sexual blindness afflicts many of the unfortunate male characters. In the scenes where Johansson puts an end to her prey, she leads them into a pitch black room, in which the only thing they can see is her body as she strips off.

Both literally and metaphorically, they are blind to everything else and it is this that leads them to a very sticky and unpleasant demise.

 

 

More to life than conventional beauty?

So we’ve established that Under The Skin puts forward the notion that being blinded by beauty can only lead to horrible things. But what of its beautiful protagonist herself?

There’s a pivotal scene in the second act of the film in which Johansson’s character picks up a hooded man in her van. When he removes his hood, he is shown to have a number of disfiguring tumours on his face (due to a rare condition called neurofibromatosis). Her tender conversation with this man triggers a vulnerability that she had not previously shown.

In a recent interview with The Observer, actor Adam Pearson gave his interpretation of that particular scene and the message of Under The Skin.

“For me, the film is about what the world looks like without knowledge and without prejudice. It’s about seeing the world through alien eyes, I guess.”

This is the clear position occupied by Scarlett Johansson in the film. Her character views the man played by Pearson without the discomfort some humans may display. She doesn’t think that image matters, until she notices the effect it has had on a man for whom she has a lot of warmth.

Crucially, the moment that Johansson’s character becomes aware of the notion of body image, she becomes cripplingly insecure and is unable to continue her work.

Her lowest ebb comes when she attempts to have sex with a kindly man, but is unable to. She can mimic human beauty, but she cannot attain human intimacy. For her at least, looking attractive and luring in men is no longer enough.

 

Scarlett Johansson uses sex as a weapon in Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson uses sex as a weapon in Under the Skin

 

Constructed sexiness is our downfall

At the climax of Under The Skin, Scarlett Johansson’s central character is killed when she is set on fire. When her human skin starts to come away, it is revealed that, under the pretty facade, there is nothing but blackness and emptiness to her.

It’s a fitting indictment on the character that give her demise a poignancy that it would not otherwise have had. Despite her development and vulnerability, it is human lust (she is killed by a man who tries to rape her) that ultimately destroys her and reveals the nothingness within.

So there you go. I just hope this article is more entertaining than Under The Skin.

 

Do you agree with my thoughts on Under The Skin? Add your interpretations and theories to the comments section below.

2 thoughts on “Analysis – Under The Skin as a critique of a society obsessed with body image

  • 09/07/2014 at 12:29
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    Thanks, I found your view on this movie very interesting. I hadn’t noticed she became more aware of body image until I read this. I will definitely see this movie again.

    Reply
  • 24/07/2014 at 16:57
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    You nailed it buddy! Great analysis on a fascinating show! I had been thinking along the same lines but was focused more on a sex based theme rather than body image. The two ideas are similar and linked in many ways, but your take makes way more sense. Loved it!

    Reply

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