Under the Skin: What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Under the Skin - 3

Of course, cultural consensus decides the fate of those it deems not beautiful, as well. A deformed, virginal young man is the only one who looks around to see that he’s being trapped in her lair, the only one who questions what is happening, who doesn’t appear to believe that he’s entitled to sex because a beautiful woman is being friendly to him. In a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability, the man is stunned by Laura’s complete lack of judgement, shock or disgust at the tumours on his face, at her uncalculated empathy when she observes that he has “beautiful hands.” One of them is dehumanized for being an imperfect specimen of idealized masculinity. The other is dehumanized for being a perfect specimen of idealized femininity. For a brief, tantalizing moment Laura finds herself accidentally communicating with a human as they share their very different otherness. The scene is both moving and horrifying for its teeming subtext. Despite its surface nihilism, Under the Skin resounds with the knowledge that we’re doomed without empathy.

When Laura brings the man back to her lair, he says: “I’m dreaming.” Laura agrees, though it’s not certain she knows what a dream even is. And yet, it is this moment that wakes her into becoming aware of the actual human body she wears, that makes her abscond her mission to explore humanity in its skin. As she recognizes in some way what human life might be like for a sexually and socially undesirable male, she begins to observe herself as a sexually desirable human female (the desirability of both decided, of course, by the hive-minds of cultures). Johansson is fantastic here, giving an uncanny performance that captures Laura’s emotional ineffability as she twitches into a human state of being. As she observes, so do we.

Under the Skin is the very definition of thought-provoking. It offers no explication, only observation and psychic regurgitation, marking in the way David Lynch’s films do humanity’s thrall to the symbolic narratives of our collective dreams, incarnate in the created phantoms of gods, monsters, aliens; psychopomps to guide us through our own existential fear. With meticulous artistry it probes our capacity for dehumanizing our own, while also observing our need and ability for empathy in a universe that’s decidedly unempathetic. It does this not just by daring us to empathize with its particular psychopomp, the unfeeling, non-human predator that is Laura, but by observing kindness and courage even amid the alien hive it presents human life as. Looking at herself in two striking shots that involve mirrors of different kinds, Laura seems to ask herself: what does this immensely conflicted human hive-mind want for itself, from the universe? And in asking that, Laura becomes if not human, more recognizable to us humans watching her—the dream is over, and the alien is awake.

Under the Skin opens on Friday, May 9.