The 2000 novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber tells the story of a female alien called Isserley. We meet her living on a remote Scottish farm from where she takes regular road trips looking for single men. The purpose of these trips transpires to be predatory; she is hunting humans to farm for her fellow alien beings.
Michel Faber has an interesting background. According to Wikipedia:
Faber was born in The Hague, Netherlands. He and his parents emigrated to Australia in 1967. He attended primary and secondary school in the Melbourne suburbs of Boronia and Bayswater, then attended the University of Melbourne, studying Dutch, Philosophy, Rhetoric, English Language (a course involving translation and criticism of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts) and English Literature. He graduated in 1980. He worked as a cleaner and at various other casual jobs, before training as a nurse at Marrickville and Western Suburbs hospitals in Sydney. He nursed until the mid-1990s. In 1993 he, his second wife and family emigrated to Scotland.
In 2014 the novel was adapted into a film by the director Jonathan Glazer. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Jonathan Glazer (born 26 March 1965) is an English filmmaker, whose directing work includes feature films, music videos and advertisements. . . [He] was born into a Jewish family, and studied in a Jewish school.” Before even considering anything about the novel or the film, it seems noteworthy that the backgrounds of the author and the director together roughly recapitulate a fair amount of the comings and goings of the people of the European continent over the last few centuries. In Faber’s case, a Dutchman who moves to the once colonial Australian continent, then to Scotland on the edge of Europe; and in Glazer’s case, a descendent of Jewish immigrants to Europe, living in England.
In the novel, Isserley lives on a remote Scottish farm and drives around looking for victims to entice with the prospect of sex. Once they are in the passenger seat of her specially adapted car, hidden syringes inject them with a fast working drug that renders them unconscious. Isserley then takes them to the farm where they are kept in an underground compound and essentially factory farmed. It turns out that human meat is an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet, and the human victims are fattened hideously before they are culled.
The book weaves together so many potent strands, in an entirely understated way, that it achieves a wholly disconcerting effect. A disturbing food chain is revealed, with the lone men’s hunger for sex leading them to become meat for the expensive tastes of Isserley’s fellow extra-terrestrials. Gender, sexuality, and animal rights mingle together in ways that do nothing to validate the typical hubris of Homo sapiens. Due to the way that the plot is slowly revealed to the reader the book manages to elicit sympathy for the human victims of Isserley, not because they are human but despite it. Isserley appears to be cruel and hubristic and that is because she behaves as humans behave. The book shifts human beings one rung down the food ladder and suddenly the ethics of the whole process appear to be appalling and inexcusable.
When Jonathan Glazer came to adapt the book into a film, he was drawn to the notion of seeing the world through alien eyes: “I suppose I must have that alien thing in me to start with. Yeah. Probably. I do feel outside. Not entirely, but I do. I’ve had that about me since quite a young age I think.” Having a Jewish identity, Glazer had a perfect opportunity to use the story of an alien in Scotland to make a few didactic points. But instead of doing so, he chose to hone down the narrative of the book to its barest essentials and produce a work that is remarkably ambiguous, unsettling, and bold.
The film has been compared to the work of Kubrick, and it’s a comparison that bears fruit. Just as with Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Glazer’s film of Under the Skin sees a Jewish director taking a book by an ethnic European author and stripping away anything in the narrative that isn’t integral to a filmic rendition. In the film of The Shining, Kubrick left out all of Jack Torrence’s back story, and he simplified the narrative so that the sinister weight of the Overlook Hotel itself became the overriding threat. The sense of claustrophobia and isolation that resulted from these directorial decisions made the film at least as successful as the book, if not more so.
In Under the Skin, Glazer transposes the setting to Glasgow and focuses entirely on the girl’s (she is unnamed in the film) efforts at hooking unsuspecting men. Throughout, he is intent on making the mundane look strange: alien, in fact. To this end, he pulls an unlikely stunt. Much of the filming involving Scarlet Johanssen driving around Glasgow features passersby who do not know that they are being filmed. This hidden camera, verite style of filming has the odd effect of making the whole thing feel hyper real, almost stylized. This is probably because we have become so used to a particular syntax of film making, involving rapid edits and orthodox camera angles, that any deviation from the norm has the appearance of a deliberate stylistic statement.
All of the narrative that described the farmed humans and their place in an off-planet economy of luxury meat has been removed. Pretty much all that’s left is the girl’s predatory excursions around Glasgow. But Glazer actually adds another touch because when the girl brings her victims back to her house the mise-en-scène shifts to a blank, abstracted space, and the men sink into a black, viscous liquid. This scenario is repeated several times in the film and it becomes apparent that this is a stand in for the farming of the men in the book. Somehow, they are supposed to sink into the liquid and become fattened before their flesh is extracted. But this is all shown in a highly stylized way; the significance seems to rest in the liminal non-space that they find themselves in. In some undefined way, it appears to be an in-between space connecting our world with that of the aliens.
Interestingly, the aesthetic design of this liminal place has recently been appropriated wholesale by the Netflix series, Stranger Things. The entire storyline of Stranger Things rests on the existence of this sinister, parallel dimension which the series designates as the “upside down.” When a young boy, Will, goes missing, his friends discover that he has been abducted by a faceless monster who resides in the upside down, but who has gained ingress to this world by virtue of some secret government experiment that has gone wrong. The monster is tempted into our world by the smell of blood. He hunts and then returns to the upside down with his captured prey. What exactly he does with them isn’t entirely clear; it seems likely that the monster is using human bodies as nourishment for larvae.
It is surely notable that this identically rendered black space, devoid of localized detail, becomes in both stories a place where alien beings treat humans as meat. And the significance of this cannot be overstated because, in both cases, the suggestion is that these liminal non-places are areas of ingress for non-human entities who have managed to intersect with our reality. In other words, they are numinous places.
So, what does it mean for these numinous places to be inhabited by non-human entities who farm humans? Certainly anyone who associates the numinous with vague feelings of spiritual uplift will be baffled by this line of thinking. But Rudolf Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy clearly showed that the numinous was characterized not only by being “wholly other” but also by being terrifying. So it is entirely reasonable to read these strange non-spaces in both Under the Skin and Stranger Things as gesturing towards the numinous.
In fact, there is an artistic precursor for this decontextualized, dark space where humans are consumed. Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son is a gruesome depiction of the myth originally associated with the Greek Titan, Cronus. Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and then learned that he too would be overthrown by one of his sons. In order to prevent this, he ate each of his children after birth. When his sixth child, Zeus, was born, the mother secretly hid him and gave to Cronus the Omphalos stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, and Cronus ate that, mistakenly taking it for his son. Zeus was thus able to grow to adulthood and to succeed his father.
In Goya’s depiction of the myth, Saturn is a monstrous figure, wild eyed and long haired. In fact, he looks almost inhuman, an impression further suggested by his peculiar posture. The vivid red of his son’s blood is the only colorful element here and this serves to draw attention to the unnatural horror of Saturn’s infantophagy. But all around Saturn there is blackness, a blank space of colorless void, seeming to isolate his action as belonging to timeless myth. And, of course, Saturn was seeking to avoid the inevitable consequence of time, that is, the succession of the child who takes the place of the father. Many of Goya’s so-called black paintings, painted when Goya was in his sixties, were preoccupied with death but Saturn has a peculiar power all its own.
Roughly contemporary with Goya, the Romantic treatment of the sublime in painting saw the emergence of landscape work that situated the human figure before an immense and overwhelming background of natural features. The progression of this tendency led to the proto-abstraction of Turner’s later works and ultimately to the possibility of complete abstraction from form of the sort that Rothko specialized in. This total abstraction from form renders possible an entirely virtual sense of the sublime, one that is severed from even a notional connection with landscape. This type of painting is often celebrated for providing a secular, humanist form of spirituality. For now, it’s enough to note that the key characteristic is a blankness, a vacuity of content that allows for a universal appreciation, unencumbered as it is by any local color. That this aesthetic discovery of the virtual sublime coincided with the rise of cinema and TV is probably not coincidental. Our networked societies now seem to be entirely predicated on rootless, transient, mutually interchangeable “citizens.”
Returning now to Scotland, Glazer’s positioning of the predatory alien girl in a non-space of black void can be seen to be part of a deeper aesthetic yearning. This yearning can roughly be said to encompass the artist’s urge to experience the numinous, and his subsequent sense of cosmic horror when he realizes that the gods have receded from the world. There is a sense that the human is not the highest form of life, hence the presumption of non-human predators who exist above us in the food chain, but there is a dark, black mystery regarding how we should try to contextualize these beings. And this is because these entities are presumed to exist in a trans-spatial otherworld, a parallel universe that somehow seems to coexist with this one. What is missing here is a sense that these numinous creatures might emerge naturally from the landscape; that they might be gods of a particular place.
What Glazer has succeeded in doing is interpreting Faber’s novel in such a way that he foregrounds the numinous sense of the “wholly other” co-existing with mundane reality. But, ultimately, the setting of Scotland (for both the book and the film) comes to seem somewhat arbitrary, and presumably this is why Glazer was able to switch the location from the rural isolation of a deserted farm to the busy city of Glasgow without damaging the narrative or thematic content. The positing of a numinous location wherein something inexplicably alien might occur is an instinctive reaction against the oppressive mundanity of a postmodern, secular, shopping-and-fucking society. The aesthetic choices made in the film help to make this clearer. But this reaction itself sets up a mirror image of that society, in that the form of the numinous that it articulates is mobile, decontextualized (like the ubiquitous shopping mall), and blank. The void space wherein humans are culled is somewhat like a Rothko painting in that it conveys a sense of the timeless but, again like a Rothko, it lacks local character, it implies universal applicability, and it could be located anywhere.
When Cronus was defeated in his infanticidal selfishness it was because he was tricked with the Omphalos stone. Zeus grew to adulthood and forced Cronus to vomit up the Omphalos stone and the children he had eaten. The Omphalos then became a marker for the center of the world and a tool for communication between the gods and man. And it is this combination that marks out the truly numinous: the particular sacred place and the presence there of local gods.
There seems to be developing a new notion that the study of sacred landscape, or psychogeography, is a discipline that can be applied to any place, and that landscape has become a generic term that can be applied anywhere. This perspective attempts to understand the numinous but it can only ever half glimpse it out of the corner of the eye because it is not attached necessarily to this particular place. Any understanding of the numinous as an easily translatable tabula rasa must inevitably miss the mark. Whilst it is admirable to attempt to grasp the nature of the numinous in this way, as a means of explaining the chaos of post modernity, it can ultimately do no more that hold up a virtual mirror to that chaos, replacing the rootless angst of the secular individual with the rootless commiseration of sacred universalism. This mirror is the upside down.
Under the Skin manages to make a really uncanny gesture towards the numinous, but it is a numinous that is articulated through the human intellect. As such, it carries with it too many of the presuppositions of the artists responsible for its articulation. For the genuinely numinous to appear it will be necessary for us to reengage with the necessity of establishing a sacred center. And it will be necessary to understand that this particular place is the landscape through which the gods will emerge. Until we are able to do that, our gods will remain virtual.
1. Jonathan Glazer, “Under the Skin: why did this chilling masterpiece take a decade?” March 6, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/mar/06/under-the-skin-director-jonathan-glazer-scarlett-johansson