How does Jonathan Glazer’s camera effectively “other” the human world?
Calling Jonathan Glazer’s abstract, mesmerizing 2013 sci-fi feature Under the Skin an alien invasion movie wouldn’t technically be wrong, but it’d be a little misleading. Loosely based on the 2000 novel by Michel Faber, it stars Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed woman (only referred to as “Laura” in the film’s credits) who is clearly not of this earth. Yet the film never articulates where precisely she comes from, or even what her motives are. Glazer’s treatment of the story is distinctly atmospheric, more concerned with tracing the subtle development of Laura’s relationship with humanity rather than blowing up the narrative stakes to grandiose, apocalyptic levels.
As a video by Julian Palmer of The Discarded Image explains, Glazer’s direction is a major element of what makes the film simultaneously so beautiful and unsettling. Taking cues from Stanley Kubrick, Glazer embeds a sense of alienation into the camera itself. For instance, the use of non-actors and hidden cameras to record Laura’s conversations with ordinary Glaswegians makes the distance between the alien protagonist and human onlookers feel even more pronounced. At times, the camerawork feels almost anthropological in its detachment, framing crowds of people on the street like a replicating virus and remaining flatly disengaged while watching a couple as they drown in the ocean.
Laura herself is a predatory figure who repeatedly lures men into a dark, liquid chasm and regards them impassively as their bodies fold into eerie husks. Even so, she remains our only point of constancy in this noisy, unfamiliar world. “As a viewer, we are studying this character looking for traces of humanity, and we are unsettled by our identification with her,” Palmer observes.
Initially, we only see Laura watching herself in fractured slices — one eye, a nose, a snippet of lips in a reflection, or half her face reflected in a car’s rearview mirror — but after she seems to discover a deeper connection with a disfigured man, she sees her face in full for the first time. It’s a moment that suggests a deeper self-consciousness of her place in the world, but also her increased vulnerability. From that point, Laura’s control over the camera seems diminished. Up to this point, we’ve seen her face primarily in magnified close-ups, and full shots have followed her decisively striding through ocean waves and surreal black water to pursue her prey — yet now her frame is swallowed up by hazy Scottish landscapes, and the way she moves through the world seems increasingly dependent on others as she gets led down stairs and carried over puddles.
The film’s ending, during which an attempted rapist sets Laura aflame after she reveals her alien form and we watch her body burn to ashes, feels deeply unnerving and tragic even as Glazer’s direction skirts obvious plays for our heartstrings. The music remains steady, never quite swelling into a mournful finale, and the most explicit farewell we get is a lingering shot of Laura — now unzipped to her genuine void-colored skin, gazing at her human mask in her hands.
This ending can also be read as a kind of victory — that is, the ultimate culmination of Laura’s desire to belong to this world. The camera pans up to follow her ashes swirling upwards, scattering through the surrounding sky, and she finally, literally, becomes one with her environment.
Watch the video below to see how Under the Skin’s camerawork makes the audience adopt an alien’s perspective.