Sex with a Lisp
By Armond White
Beneath the skin of every sexphobe hides a stranger to humanity. That’s the best lesson from the British art film Under the Skin (and you must stretch to take it) where several likable, love-hungry men are methodically dispatched by a “female” alien on a sex-negative killing spree.
Under the Skin joins the post-feminist backlash in which cute guys get wronged by the opposite sex—as with the indecisive. heart-wrecking young heroine of Blue is the Warmest Color. That bizarre treatment of sexual Otherness emphasized loveless girl-on-girl action merely to exploit lesbian experimentation for sexually-curious audiences. The repeated male rejections showed voyeur-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s concealed revulsion and unconscious misogyny.
Jonathan Glazer, director-writer of Under the Skin, takes this sex-hating practice to paranoid extremes: His sci-fi premise toys with, and abhors, sexual orientation. An otherworldly origin sequence parodies the intergalactic star-formation scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: Mysterious cosmic shapes (resembling a juvenile’s hot-dogs-and-donuts doodle) morph into a creature who then assumes a human female corpse: Ta-da! Sexpot Scarlett Johansson.
That’s the first and only joke in this gruesome manhunt. Johansson was last seen in a misogynist, sex-phobic context when Woody Allen dispatched her like a drowned cat in Match Point. This time, dressed in fur jacket, apple-bottom jeans, torn stockings and constantly applying red lipstick, Johansson’s alien personifies skank: easy sex with the un-ignorable promise of an STD or worse. In a game of sexual cruelty (part of some vague outer space invasion?) she seduces numerous innocent men in the lonely, wintry wastelands of Scotland, banishing them to a limbo where they are desiccated then killed like some Byzantine gay-bashing.
Her killings are staged as strip shows: Glazer favors a white cyclorama background evoking George Lucas’ first movie THX 1138 (a title Lucas said should be pronounced as “’sex’ with a lisp”) or a pitch-black void to show off her nudity. The alien’s victims float in an oily amniotic fluid. Their bodies, featuring prominent erections, swell then implode—flimsy, collapsed receptacles resembling discarded condoms floating in sewage. Each liquidation is scored to an extraterrestrial screech like that whining siren in Britney Spears’s “Toxic”—a pop art effect betraying Glazer’s background in music videos but done pseudo-seriously.
Between serial murders, Glazer offers documentary portraits of Glaswegian street life (including a striking,overlapping sepia-toned montage). Using believably avid non-actors among the horny dupes excited by Johansson (plus a family with a crying baby in a riptide beach/murder scene) adds a sympathetic element—and an Elephant Man-type adds bathos—but it’s finally shallow and heartless. This unpleasant, deliberately enigmatic fantasy works best with geeky types who also fell for Glazer’s dull, pompous debut film, Birth. Responding to these mistreated cute boys as nerd-surrogates, sexphobic fanboys enjoy Under the Skin’s revenge drama.
Glazer must have had suffered some awful nightclub rebuffs to have channeled his feelings and his affectations into something this fearful. (Sample trite dance club chat-up: “I’m alone, you’re alone.” “Are you alone?” ) The alien’s fate also resembles gay-bashing: rape-like humiliation and immolation propelled by unexplained vengeance and a nihilistic aversion to sex.
Under the Skin is sex with an “art” impediment, displaying an angry, panicky castration complex. Here’s Glazer’s Everynerd moral: Rejection is one thing, but rejection from an alien is cruel.