Visual Storytelling: Under The Skin, or “Story as Framework”

Note: This review was originally written for another site called Quantum Pop Blog. When that site went under, I brought the article over to my personal site. Aside from stripping out the words “Quantum Pop Blog”, the article is unchanged from its orignal format.

I once had an interesting argument with an aspiring director. He believed that the audience didn’t like to think and that if a story told them something, they would just accept it as true until they were told it wasn’t. I disagreed with this idea, mostly because I like to think about what is being presented to and I imagine others would as well. I could not, however, explain why I preferred this. Under The Skin is director Jonathan Glazer’s resounding rebuttal to the aspiring director’s ideas. For people who don’t like to think during a film, this is a terrible story to watch. For those that do like to think, it’s a deep philosophical statement. Still, before we get into this, we have to have a bit of theory on storytelling.

On Storytelling

Storytelling is seen as an entertainment product, but it pervades our lives. We tell stories about ourselves; where we’ve been, what we’re doing and where we’d like to go. Politicians tell stories about the laws they’re trying to pass and doctors tell stories about the illnesses their patients suffer. Our lives are suffused with and controlled by stories.

The best stories are malleable. They can be adapted with very little editing into almost any circumstance. Shakespeare was a master at this. Most of his most famous plays have been interpreted and re-interpreted in various cultures all over the world. This happens because his plays give just enough detail to guide the thoughts of the audience, but leave gaps that allows the people watching to fill in with their imagination. A good story is not a solid block placed before you. A good story is a lattice through which you inject your own experiences to create a meaningful whole. The storyteller creates the story, but you finish it and give it resonance.

Under The Skin

That’s what makes Jonathan Glazer’s film so powerful. Under The Skin isn’t’ an experience in and of itself, but becomes an experience because it holds back so much. It might charitably be called a character study, but the characters in question are so incomprehensible, that the film becomes much like the killing room it features where men are pulled in and stay until the stuff within them is pulled out. For the audience, it is much the same. What the film means depends almost exclusively on who you are when you see it.

Under the Skin achieves this by keeping the audience at a distance and never allowing them closer. We see the actions, but we receive little to no information on motivations. No one in the film has a name. For the purposes of this article we refer to Scarlett Johansson’s character as The Woman, but honestly no one referred to by name either in the film or the credits.

The Woman does most of the talking throughout the film, but that doesn’t help much. We know she’s a predator and her speech only confirms this. The men she traps are not characters the audience is meant to identify with. Glazer is able to do this in part because the film takes place in Scotland. The men The Woman talks to have accents so thick that it’s almost impossible to understand what they are saying. Conversations involve short sentences and reveal little about the men themselves. We are given nothing to suggest we care about them beyond observation. We are merely there to watch them be captured.

Although there are shots that show the world from The Woman’s point of view, they are not done so with an eye towards giving insight into her thoughts. Throughout the film she is watching humanity, but coldly. Close to halfway in the film, there’s a shift in observations from males to females, although she exclusively captures men. There’s no dialogue or motivating scene to explain this nor is there anything to truly explain her actions going forward. As mentioned above, the film isn’t a final story. It’s a framework. The meaning we receive from the film depends on our experiences coming in and our willingness to face those experiences within the context of the film.

But… for those looking for a somewhat more tidy explanation of the film… what could it mean? I have an idea, but be warned of spoilers. Abandon all hope ye who read further.

My Interpretation

There are two critical moments in the film to consider. The first is at the beginning when The Woman is pulling clothes off a kidnapped human female. I’ve seen videos of animals having their skins removed for pelts. and I can attest to the fact that this scene is very reminiscent of that act. This may have been the only female in the entire film that was given the same treatment as the men, but mostly out of necessity. The Woman needed clothes to blend in.

Moments after skinning her prey, The Woman notices an ant that stowed away on the female’s body. We see a closeup of it. This is Glazer telling us two things. First, this is a story that focuses on a very inhuman creature in our world, but also that this is a story about connection. Ants are completely separated from humanity, but there are still common needs. In particular, there is the need for community. Ants have their colony and humans have their family and friends. When an ant is separated from the colony, it is vulnerable. This is true for humans as well and, it seems, for The Woman.

This is emphasized in the second critical moment about halfway through the film. At a remote beach, The Woman observes a family comprised of a husband, a wife and a baby. The husband and the baby are sitting away from the surf, but the wife is separated from them and is pulled into the water by the undertow. The husband leaves the baby behind to jump into the water to save his wife, despite the clear fact that he will surely drown. Indeed he does. The last we see of the baby alone and crying desperately. We only hear of them again in a radio report. The husband’s body has washed ashore, but the wife and the baby are still missing. The wife’s body is likely washed out to sea, but the baby? Just gone. Consumed by the world.

It is these two scenes that provide context for the rest of the film. The Woman is a predator. Like all predators she seeks out the most vulnerable prey. In her case, this prey is comprised of men with no friends or family nearby and thus no one to miss them when they disappear. The species The Woman hails from clearly has some kind of community dynamic. She has a handler who brings her a female to steal clothes from, who cleans up the occasional mess for her and who occasionally inspects her outer form to make sure it is convincing. We have no other information about the culture of this species, but we don’t need that information. We know now that she is part of a larger community.

While connected to this community, The Woman is invulnerable. She tracks her prey, captures them and hunts again. If she had kept to this, she would have been invulnerable forever. As the film progresses, however, she begins to take more note of humanity in general and not just her prey. Is she empathizing with them? But we do see that exposure to humanity is having an effect on her.

This culminates with the capture of a deformed man. Her species, for all its ability to blend in with humans in general, seems to have some information gaps. She does not act in any way aware that this man has a serious genetic deformity and tries the same pick-up lines that she has used on regular men. After capturing him, she finds herself staring at her reflection in a mirror. She could be having a moment of self-realization. She could be realizing the man she captured is outside the normal spectrum of prey. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she lets him go. In doing so, she transforms from predator to prey.

The fact that this particular man is the turning point in her life is fodder for discussion. After all, the other captured men generally wanted to fulfill their own sexual urges while this particular man was just looking for some human affection. For the purposes of this interpretation all we need to know is that he is the trigger that causes The Woman’s downfall. By releasing him, she has cut her ties to her own community and now must escape into the world.

It is after this point we discover just how vulnerable she is. Prior to this moment we have not seen her eat or sleep, yet after this moment she does both. This is very telling about her new problems. Lots of people like to eat, but eating is not a choice. All creatures on Earth must do it or perish. The fact that The Woman even tries it means eating is possible for her species which in turn means it is necessary. The fact that she vomits the human food after eating it means she can only eat food for her species. This means that she’s in serious trouble since she’s run from the very community that can keep her alive.

Sleep is also important. When any creature sleeps it is in an extremely vulnerable state. This is why we as humans encase ourselves in houses and rooms. We must protect ourselves in order to sleep. That The Woman can sleep again indicates she must sleep, which means she needs protection. Protection that, again, she no longer has. When she encounters a trucker, he speaks to her using the same language and techniques that she has used on men. We know what will happen and, in her most vulnerable moment it does happen. She is hunted, caught and processed accordingly.

In the end, The Woman, like the baby, is defenseless. She disappears and is gone. Consumed by the world.

For myself, this is the interpretation of Under The Skin. But other interpretations exist and are valid. Unless you’re the type that doesn’t like to think at movies. If so, well, I hope you enjoyed the article, but this film is not for you.

Feel free to comment on this article! It’s the kind of movie that invites discussion!

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.