With it’s almost Kubrickian poise, bitter Scottish landscapes and it’s juddering, unearthly score provided by Mica Levi, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin has an understandable – if unfair – reputation as a cold, cruel and detached beast. Scarlett Johansson’s inscrutable, unnamed human facsimile may seem in-keeping with this assessment, not exactly warming up the screen. Yet, Under the Skin is a lockbox filled with emotion, and no scene evidences this more succinctly than the one in which The Female (as we’ll call her, though gender here is misleading) pops to a restaurant for a slice of Black Forest gateau.
It occurs in the second half of the picture once she has experienced a pivotal breakthrough. Having slayed and consumed a number of Scottish men whose disappearances might not draw immediate attention, The Female ensnares but subsequently releases a man with various facial deformities (Adam Pearson). This act of mercy or conscience unmoors her from the robotic machinations of her mission, and sends her on a minor odyssey out on the country’s misty hills. One reading might be that she has been ‘infected’ by humanity. The remainder of the film, therefore, plays as a deeply tragic portrait of an outsider trying to assimilate. Indeed, Under the Skin might be the ultimate outsider film.
The scene in question plays out simply, but it’s among the most affecting in the film I find. It’s the one I think of first when the film comes up (either in conversation or memory). My favourite scene, I suppose.
Having abandoned her mission to harvest the innards of virile young men (Michel Faber’s book makes the reasons for this more explicit) and having wandered into a metaphorically potent fog, The Female arrives at the picturesque country restaurant. A waitress arrives wordlessly with her chosen dessert, and The Female rather precisely – and tentatively – arranges a portion on her fork. Bringing it to her mouth occurs with some ceremony; we’re given to understand that this is a first. An experiment in being a person.
Before she’s even able to swallow, however, she feels compelled to reject the food. Spitting it out, she sits there solemnly in failure. A few stray heads turn at the noise, though no one says anything. The scene is short. Over relatively quickly, but it resonates strongly.
It succeeds in conveying, very simply, an inability to tessellate with societal expectations. To eat is one of the most fundamental human bodily functions (the film will get on to sex later). The Female’s inability to ingest the gateau reflects sadly on the success she will have assimilating in other ways.
Going further, if we are indeed to imprint a desire for gender identification onto The Female (and the men she encounters certainly treat her with binary simplicity), then the decision for the food to be cake feels potentially loaded, too.
Justly or not, confections of this kind come weighted with centuries of connotations that skew desserts – perhaps all desserts – as a feminine delicacy; from the tea times of Jane Austin to the infamous misquotation ascribed to Marie Antoinette. The lavish opulence of the gateau tilts slightly further into this sensibility. Sealing the deal, The Female is wearing a bright pink top – acquired during her former days as a sexual predator – chosen as an enhancement of her femininity. While I don’t personally subscribe to the binary suggestions of cakes or colours, I believe such things come with certain coded biases inherited from the world we live in. Things to unlearn, perhaps.
So, The Female not only fails at being convincingly human but also, it is suggested, cannot successfully be defined along traditional human gender lines. Her body’s rejection of the cake amounts to a ‘does not compute’ response. Her transformation is, for the time being, a psychological one first and foremost. The body hasn’t caught up, hasn’t evolved at the same rate. There’s a genuine pang of trans heartache to the scene that renders her failure quietly mortifying. It’s incredibly powerful and sad.
Having watched the first half of the film (during which she kills a number of people and leaves a baby for dead before an incoming tide) the suggestion that we will later feel the deepest of sympathies – or even pity – for The Female might seem far-fetched, but Glazer gets us there. Later, with some irony, we will squirm at the prospect of her sexual assault (a scene rendered, rightly, as genuinely invasive and horrifying). For it’s part, the cake eating scene is a far more poised and judicious landmark; a watershed moment all the more affecting for how quiet and public it is.
This last is also important. Like The Female’s stumble earlier in the film, her failure with the cake occurs in a public place. But where earlier she is helped (something she disregards), here she is simply disregarded. She doesn’t go unnoticed, but nobody offers concern or aid. Glazer frames her alone at the table, distanced from the other patrons, which seems to make it feel all the sadder.
I often feel ‘othered’ myself. Not fitting in. Closed off perhaps, or lacking understanding of certain mentalities and ways of behaving. We’ve all felt unseen at some time or another. I also often feel misgendered; more female than male. This admission belies my bias with regards to Under the Skin, reveals the thinking behind some of the above. But, I think, it also goes to show how the film genuinely speaks to me. How something so seemingly cold can reveal a profoundly aching heart. A lasting point of connection. When I think of this scene, I think of how The Female might feel. That mix of confusion, failure, embarrassment. In it’s own way this moment of loneliness makes me feel less alone because I recognise it. And if such a reach can be made here, maybe as though I might one day be similarly – if fleetingly – understood.
All in the futility of a slice of Black Forest gateau.