Translating Experience: Under the Skin

Posted by Timothy C. Baker on April 13, 2015 in Guest Blog, Timothy Baker tagged with , ,

How we think about mourning, and how we consider our place in the world, is always in part a question of medium, of how our world is presented to us. There may be no better example of this than Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin and Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 film version, scripted by Walter Campbell, specifically in the way they handle the question of animal.


Faber’s novel has often been read as problematising binary oppositions between human and nonhuman animals. The novel depicts a group of aliens raising humans as meat on a farm near Inverness. By using ‘human’ to describe the aliens at the novel’s centre, who look something like sheep or dogs in their natural form, and ‘vodsel’ to describe what is normally considered human, the novel demonstrates the extent to which language is essential in creating a division between human and animal. This is most clearly revealed when one of the vodsels – formerly a human hitchhiker – whose tongue has been removed scratches the word ‘mercy’ in the dirt and Isserley, the novel’s alien protagonist, discovers that ‘the word was untranslatable into her own tongue; it was a concept that just didn’t exist’ (p. 171). Linguistic otherness is the key signifier of species otherness.


Yet the relationship between human and animal in the novel is somewhat more complicated. The novel constitutes what might be called environmental enmeshment: despite Isserley’s estrangement from the vodsel world, her relation to language shows her enmeshment. For most of the novel, Isserley finds vodsel language nonsensical or meaningless, finding something more familiar in the dying cry of a giant insect in a B-Movie on tv. Yet in the final passages of the novel, she engages with, and rationalizes herself to, the people around her. Language becomes a system of relation, seen most clearly (if heavy-handedly) in the progression of the word ‘Mercy’ not only from a drawing in the dust to a vocalized plea, but to the name of a hospital that is Isserley’s final destination before her self-immolation at the novel’s end. Attention to suffering allows for the recognition of shared vulnerability. The novel, perhaps necessarily, presents its own medium as definitional: Isserley’s own move from observing language, to employing it, to accepting its world-forming possibilities, echoes the reader’s own understanding of the text. Isserley’s transition from upholding rigid species boundaries to an embodied understanding of her environment is accomplished only through language. The defamiliarisation caused by the switch of the referent for ‘human’ places the reader in a position of spectatorship that must gradually be worked through, mirroring Isserley’s own journey.


This might, perhaps, seem like a trivial point, but becomes more pertinent when considering Glazer’s adaptation. The film, has limited dialogue and, indeed, narrative: rather than repeating the story of the novel, it instead repeats its thematic and emotional arc. The film opens with an almost abstract sequence where strange shapes and lights collide and pass by each other while a voice burbles abstract syllables, culminating in the word ‘film’ as the first recognizable utterance.Screen-Shot-2014-07-27-at-9.49.13-PM


under-the-skin-under-the-skin-2013-jpeg-191690The images here do not appear to represent in a way we’re accustomed to: they might evoke images of space from 2001, or might simply induce audience frustration as they wait for the film to begin – both times I’ve seen it with an audience, they’ve laughed in confusion. These images culminate in a close-up of a human eye. What is clear here is not what we’re seeing, but that the position of the spectator is constantly being problematised. There is no dialogue for almost twenty minutes: instead we are immersed in a strange sequence of people and places whose actions make no sense to us. The ‘human’ qualities of narrative, character, and so forth seem not to apply.


As the plot of the film is gradually revealed, the protagonist’s relation to her environment becomes coded in terms of focal point. Midway through the film she encounters a Czech tourist on an almost-deserted beach, who explains that he has travelled here because it is ‘Nowhere’.under-the-skin-beach-still The scene employs a very short focus limited to wherever the protagonist is standing – both foreground and background are slightly blurred. The sequence is one of the cruellest in the film, as the protagonist leaves several people, including a toddler, to die while serving only her own mission to collect people. This lack of compassion is reflected in that short focal length – her world is only where she is at a given moment. The protagonist’s development of ‘human’ sympathy or empathy is occasioned by an encounter with a disabled young man for whom she feels pity, after which she flees to a small village. Crucially, the visual field dramatically changes at this juncture. under-the-skin-choice In this scene, she is in focus in the foreground, while waiting for a bus that will emerge from the upper right corner – both areas, and all the space between them, are kept in deep focus, so that the spectator must constantly look back and forth. The protagonist’s discovery of agency is mirrored in the viewer’s own need to direct their vision.


Both Faber’s novel and Glazer’s film move from estrangement to enmeshment, from a position of alienated spectatorship to one of empathy; to learn to suffer, to mourn, you must learn to be in the world. Yet what’s important to me, here, is that neither does this simply by depicting or recounting the blurring of species boundaries. Rather, each explores the relation of medium to theme. The novel implicates the reader as reader, the film implicates the viewer as viewer. As such, they emphasise the way in which texts themselves are world-forming, and in which our alienation from, or enmeshment in, the world of the text can act as a parallel to our relation to the world. By drawing attention to the bodies and world created and experienced through given media, both texts attempt to replicate the protagonist’s own relation to the world.



Michel Faber, Under the Skin (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001).

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