What happens when you take a camp premise seriously?
I once saw a production of a musical adaptation of Dracula that did that. Dracula’s leitmotif was sombre and doomy, Van Helsing sang forcefully about the urgency of combatting “the children of Satan” – it was all played utterly straight. And, of course, it was unintentionally very funny. Bram Stoker’s original novel is wonderful, but it’s also lurid and outlandish right from the get-go, and you have to acknowledge that, and not pretend that you can treat it as straight melodrama, or you’ll wind up with something very silly indeed.
The question came to my mind again when I recently went to see “Under the Skin,” the Scottish science fiction fable from director Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson. The premise of the film: Johansson is an alien life form whose task it is to seduce solitary human males to their dooms. She drives around Glasgow in a white van, asking directions of the men she passes and then offering them a lift. When they get in, she flirtily chats with them and ultimately invites them back to a secluded cabin, whose interior I will not describe because it is one of the signature horrors of the film.
This is, as I say, a pretty campy premise – actually, the seductress picking up men in her white van is worse, a low-budget porn premise. And I worried: won’t the characters in the film understand that? If they do, won’t that spoil it for the rest of us? And if they don’t, won’t that spoil it worse, by making them seem idiots?
I went in hoping, in fact, that the film would be cleverly conscious of its own campiness, and thereby transcend it – that it would be an updating of “Liquid Sky,” the early ’80s cult classic. There are some obvious points of comparison, after all. Both films are about female visitors to a strange and hostile city. Both films identify sex with violence and death, both reverse the trope of male predation and female victimhood, and both show us that reversal from the female perspective. And both involve aliens with a taste for human flesh, albeit in the case of “Liquid Sky” the woman is not herself the alien – she just has aliens living on her roof.
“Liquid Sky” was self-conscious – but no less-affecting for that. It’s a highly idiosyncratic nightmare portrait of New York at a certain point in time, a lot more distinctive and convincing than, say, “Escape From New York” if not nearly as coolly accomplished as, say, “After Hours.” And, taken seriously, it has something real to say about the despair of that sexual moment as well:
So I was taught that I should come to New York, become an independent woman. And my prince would come, and he would be an agent, and he would get me a role, and I would make my living waiting on tables. I would wait – till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my c—. Isn’t it fashionable? Come on, who’s next? I’ll take lessons. How to get into show business: be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: f— women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom. Men won’t step on you anymore, women will. So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right, because they’re all dead. All my teachers.
That sure ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s not “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” either. It’s something that has gone through camp and come out the other side, into something like sincerity. Is that what “Under the Skin” aimed to do?
As it turns out, “Under the Skin” does almost the opposite. It does an exceptionally good job of threading the narrow eye of the needle that avoids camp entirely, in spite of its outlandishly camp premise. It does this by emphatically identifying us with Johansson’s alien perspective.
We first glimpse Johansson when she receives her skin, from what appears to be the corpse of the human she’s modeled on (it’s a bit vague what’s precisely going on, but the emotional tone is clear). But this skin is provided her by a male handler, a kind of evil Power Ranger, complete with dopey motorbike. He’s effectively her pimp – so from the beginning, we’ve avoided identifying Johansson with a kind of male horror fantasy of female sexuality. And we’ve also avoided the porn fantasy by showing us the existence of a power structure of some kind behind that fantasy’s enactment.
Then we travel around with Johansson in her white van, observing as she does – and the crowded streets are shot in such a way that we never get a sense of purpose to any of the activity we observe. Johansson’s eyes flit about, looking for prospects; she isn’t trying to understand what these creatures are doing, and so we never understand. They’re just a mass of humanity, a herd from which she culls a gullible few.
Moreover, we’re in Glasgow, and the male citizens of Glasgow speak in an almost impenetrable accent, while Johansson’s accent is vaguely London – the kind of accent someone might learn to play a British character in a not-very-good film. She’s not trying to fit in; she’s barely trying to pass. She speaks what sounds like a script, and barely varies it; when she picks up a severely deformed man, she shows no sign of noticing any difference from her other marks. If she weren’t so good-looking, there’s no way she’d pass the Turing Test. And yet she’s the only one we can reliably comprehend.
All of these factors help us forget the camp absurdity of the premise, which no longer feels like it is even terribly important. It’s certainly never explained at all; the movie seems completely uninterested in motive. It’s just a given that this is her social role, and the movie is interested in what it’s like to be her.
But who is she? Why invent this person, and ask us to spend time with her? About half an hour in, after an exceptionally horrific scene of callousness on Johansson’s part, where she kills an unequivocally good person and leaves another innocent to die without even noticing, I began to wonder what this film meant on a metaphoric level. It didn’t seem to be interested in satirizing the sexual dynamics of contemporary Scotland, not in any direct way.
And then Johansson’s character changed, abruptly. She felt pity on one of her victims, and allowed him to escape, and as a consequence became completely unmoored from herself. She wandered in a daze, eventually to be taken under the wing of a sympathetic (and strangely incurious) Scottish man, before fleeing him in turn and winding up the victim of yet another man, one as one-dimensionally predatory as she had been.
What did this reversal mean, this reversion to female victimhood that seemed to flow inexorably from the alien’s minimal concession to humanity? There was something dark and sad being said here, something that harkened back to the junkie-eat-junkie landscape of “Liquid Sky,” where our protagonist, primed to be a perfect victim, discovers new powers of predation, and gets no satisfaction or release from them. Johansson seemed to me to be representing yet another new womanhood, not the worn-out androgene of 1982, but something lush and overtly feminine, but as scripted, anhedonic and cold as the men who follow seduction guides. She has no history that brought her to this state – it’s not a choice, but a role she is given by others. But having learned that role, she’s lost and helpless when first she tries to be human. That’s a heck of an abyss to find at the bottom of a movie with such a camp premise.
But if stare into a camp premise long enough, it seems, eventually it will stare back at you.