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Sex and alienation in Scotland

  • 29 May 2014

Under the Skin (MA). Director: Jonathan Glazer. Starring: Scarlett Johansson. 108 minutes

The succubus of medieval legend is a female demonic being, sexual intercourse with whom can result in sickness or death. In popular literature, the succubus frequently appears as a beautiful woman, who employs her sexual prowess to lure unsuspecting men to their doom. This depiction resonates uneasily with biblical teaching about the role of Eve in the fall of Man; also with the attitudes of contemporary 'men's rights' movements, who view liberated women as social and sexual aggressors, and all cultures in which women are held responsible for the sexual-moral shortcomings of men. These are deeply troubling connotations.

Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's eerie adaptation of Michael Faber's 2000 novel, spins mythology into science-fiction, subverting the implicit 'cautionary' aspects of succubus stories into an absorbing and thoughtful consideration of alienation and human connection, sexual and otherwise. Scarlett Johansson's 'succubus' is not a demon but an alien; she dons the skin of an attractive young woman, and tempts men with the unspoken promise of sex, luring them to her lair in order to harvest their flesh. (This horrific process is realised on film largely through the use of surreal imagery that is no less disturbing for its lack of explicitness.)

The alien is on a learning curve. During an opening montage of abstract images that presumably represent her entrance to earth, we hear her, in voiceover, rehearsing the sounds of human language. The opening portion of the film finds her traversing an otherworldly urban Scotland, quietly grappling with the nuances of human interaction as she attempts to snare her prey. She is necessarily untroubled by conscience: in one scene she watches dispassionately as a woman and a man drown on a secluded beach, then kills a second man who tried to rescue them. Given the nature of her quest, it is a strength that she does not know empathy.

But this, too, she learns. One of her victims is a young man with severe congenital facial deformations. The tenderness with which she engages him is a means to an end — the man's nervous responses to her are genuinely touching, which makes the prospect of his impending doom all the more unpalatable. Indeed, her affected pity soon gives way to sincere compassion, even mercy. She breaks character and routine, at cost to her own wellbeing: her alien overseer, in the guise of a