“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is a recurring series hosted by Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience, inviting writers all across the internet to chime in on their favorite shots from films. This is our take on the best shot from Under the Skin.
The big heat of fall festival season is on its way, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if this changes somewhere in the mix, but as of this moment, no 2014 film has done more for me than Under the Skin. When I say “for me”, I mean as both an immersing theatrical experience and as a film to live by. To my logic, I can never walk away from a great movie without taking something from it that’s applicable to my everyday existence. If I do, I probably haven’t seen that impressing a film. I’m certainly not new to Jonathan Glazer having this kind of overwhelmingly strange effect on me. Birth is a film I continue to get constant shivers watching, telling a love story that’s just as quintessentially offputting as it is touchingly sincere.
I certainly wouldn’t go forward from here expecting Jonathan Glazer to do anything too tied down to the realm of total realism. If anything he’s proven himself one of the most impressive fantasy filmmakers of our time, mostly because of how he pushes that realm of the disturbingly weird and the world of our everyday experiences into a forcible, though no less passionate, kiss. That discomfiting feeling is latched into the DNA of Under the Skin, assuming it isn’t already its total reason for being. Though it tackles modern interpretations of sexual connection, it’s far from a relationship movie. Conversations barely scratch the surface of mutual understanding. They’re built on the basis of carnal sex appeal, and after all that foreplay, they don’t even get to fucking, which is, as I understand it, probably the main cause of booing at its Venice screening.
Though it’s necessarily hesitant to become complicit in the gratuitous sexuality, that shouldn’t imply that it’s rendered as anything but gorgeous. The prospect of narrowing it down to a single shot is dread inducing enough, and usually my first reaction is to look at the recurring trends throughout the film, at least to get a handle on the visual framework being leaned on. One thing that becomes more and more noticeable on return viewings, and seems very purposefully like an enigma on first glance, is the motorcyclist. It’s who we start out the film with, before we get around to Scarlett Johansson’s nameless seductress, even before her existence. He’s furious, ambiguous, and with a hint of deformity added by his hunchbacked biker suit.
In other words, or more universally in cultural terms, He is the muscle. He is action, power, possession, and an added capacity for violence. You can see it in the worldless scene of him sizing her up/intimidating her/whatever aliens do when revolving 360 degrees around each other. The companion image of Her face (see above), so up close it’s impersonal, says a great deal of how these coldly objectifying creatures see women. A pretty face, or more specifically an alluring image. In understanding the logic of the film’s world, these are creatures of pure utility… which doesn’t make them a whole lot different from how humans go about using one another.
Mind you, sexual utility doesn’t always come from sinister motivations. As shown through one particularly crucial encounter of Her’s, human contact of any kind can mean everything in a person’s life, and once again Glazer gives us a visual cue that we’re headed in that direction. The above image is one that looks intensely mystifying out of context, but has blunt implications about human connections when viewed in the film. It’s a social network, invisible to those caught up in it, but all too clear to those caught outside’s gaze.
By the time we hit the changeover of the halfway mark, we’ve been quite sensuously allured by the stealthy repetitions of Her. However it’s where the film proceeds from there, broken from routine and thrown helplessly into the unmarked, uncoded world, that carries over the full severity of its studies on sexuality, identity and connection. I feel guilty spoiling any of its surprises for those who’ve yet to discover it first hand.
That makes it kind of hard when my favorite shot from the film is perhaps the one it leaves us on. As per usual, it’s one that offers the least to go on, particularly considering the avant garde surrealist imagery at play in its most disturbing sequences of literal human construction and deconstruction. And yet, when the film leaves us, all that’s left is a thin veil of falling sky and an intense white void beyond. The night sky may offer glimmers of exciting promise, but Glazer subverts that promise for something bleaker and more quietly threatening. It’s not nothing, and it’s not quite the everything of entrancing, glistening social network. It’s the cold, ground up, unrecognizable and infinitesimal remains left behind by everything and everyone that’s still out there in the world. When I first saw it in quiet, domestic New Hampshire, I imagined that unknown fear around every corner. Over my summer in New York, I’ve been able to tangibly feel it. For all the alluring possibilities out there, there is just as much threat of things going catastrophically sour that keeps us from trying at all.