It’s been a long time since college, when I wrote my Marxist critique of It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve been out of the film review game for some time, so I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about the cinematic merits of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s re-imagining of Michel Faber’s novel, a film that blew me away to the point I was almost in a coma afterwards. I haven’t felt this way about a movie since I saw Apocalypse Now for the first time. On that night, over thirty years ago, the film was shown in a large auditorium-style lecture hall, one where a 300-student Psych 101 class might meet. The lights dimmed. Right from the first scenes of exploding, Napalmed trees and helicopter blades whirring and morphing into Martin Sheen’s hotel-room ceiling fan while Jim Morrison sang, “This is the end…beautiful friend…the end…”, I was mesmerized. When the movie ended, I walked back to my dorm room in Eastman Hall in a daze. I couldn’t speak. People may have walked past and said hello, but I saw no one, spoke to no one. My roommate was away. I remember turning on my twinkly Christmas lights, putting some Doors on the stereo, and just staring into space for what seemed like hours. I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. Even for days after, I thought about little else.
Walking out of the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland last Thursday on a foggy night, close to midnight, I felt the same way. My physical body, right down to the cellular level, had been irrevocably altered. As I walked back to my car, drunks shouted and spilled out of Old Port bars. I was an alien among humans. A stranger. While I watched a movie, Earth had been made new. I was discovering rain-soaked streets, buildings made of glass and steel, televisions flickering through bar windows, trees lit from behind by street lamps, as if for the first time. There was a deep silence to the world that I hadn’t noticed before. I drove the almost 45 minutes home with the radio off and the windows up, quiet in my pod. A few days later, I was working outside in some woods near my house. The wind whispered through the tall trees, and I thought I saw Scarlett Johansson’s alien moving through the undergrowth, a dark shape among darker shadows. But it was just some branches rustling.
Like thirty years ago, I haven’t been able to think of much else since. Talking about it seems futile. No one would understand anyway. Like any deeply personal reaction to Art, it would have to remain my little secret. And although I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss the theoretical aspects of this mesmerizing, truly visionary film or the hypnotic, cliché-busting, unexpected, typecast-smashing, insert-superlative-adjective-here performance of its star, as a man of a certain age in late period capitalist America, I do feel somewhat qualified to talk about one aspect of the film with some degree of competency: boobs.
Scarlett Johansson is our movie-actress version of Beyoncé: larger than life, reputation slightly out of proportion to talent, looks really great in clothes. An unobtainable Hollywood sexpot starlet, object of volcanic desire for men and women alike. Men want to possess her; women want to look like her. Or at least that’s the story we’ve been sold. Because here’s the thing. Johansson’s nudity in this film is almost completely asexual, almost anti-sexual. True, to the (also nude) men that she lures to their death, the alienized version of Scarlett is the slightly-out-of-reach ideal sexual partner. The genius of the film, and of Johansson’s performance, is that she takes this Hollywood fantasy, the one that she herself has been so adept at creating and cultivating these past years, and, like the poor men she seduces, completely and utterly sucks the marrow out of its false, bloated body. As the director said in an interview, “I think if people go there to get their rocks off, they’re better off going to see something else.”
The truth is Johansson’s naked body in this film looks rather, well, normal. If there even is such a thing as a “normal” human body. And that’s the other thing. There is no such thing as a normal or perfect human body. Anyone who has ever met a “movie star” in real life, as I have, will probably tell you, as I will, that they have way more wrinkles and much less hair than they do on screen. I’ve also been to quite a few clothing-optional beaches and have seen literally thousands of naked men and women. And let me tell you: there was nothing special about any of them. Beautiful and infinitely varied, yes. But none normal, none special, and none perfect.
Commerce and commerce alone has sexualized the human body. The only reason sex sells is because we let it. Men and women have bought into the fantasy of human perfection, but what Scarlett shows us, in her brave performance, is that the whole shebang is one fat lie. It’s the covering-up that seduces. The revealing holds no power. When we realize this, we will be free from the lies that constrain not only our physical bodies, but our emotional ones as well.
Once we realize that we are all flawed beings walking around on the surface of this rainy, stony earth in imperfect coats of flesh, we can truly become human. In and under our skin.