Much will be said about the women and their use of sex as a means to an end in Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac and Jonathan Glazer’s alluring new film, Under the Skin. Sex in both endeavors is a must; it’s an addiction in the former and a tool for sustenance in the latter. But in both cases the women are driven by something beyond their control and as a result, they prey.
Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Stacy Martin as the young incarnation), the insatiable protagonist in von Trier’s pandering provocation, embarks on her first hunt aboard a train wearing gleefully self-described “fuck me” garb. She’s looking to achieve a series of bathroom conquests and baits the men, packed like sardines into cramped traveling compartments, with fluttering doe-like eyes as she requests help in finding the washroom, and later, for her crowing achievement, settles on a more stately married man in first class. He is so morally affixed and committed that to break that bond will yield the greatest conquest and the most points in an ongoing game of sexual one-upmanship with a fellow train cruiser. After swaying the reluctant mark, he passively empties himself into her mouth. The man is changed, drained, and emotionally shaken from the transgression he consciously wished no part of until mid-ejaculation. For Joe the act is simply a tally notch, a big bull buffalo on the savanna that her sleek apex feline sussed out, isolated, and brought down. How the man returns to his wife, or if his life is disrupted by the interlude, is of no concern.
In the wild, the act of predation is cold, calculating, and necessary. There is nothing civil or remorseful about it. While Joe does it to feed her id or inner dysfunction, Scarlett Johansson’s intoxicating incarnation in Under the Skin, largely nameless but identified as Laura in the credits, does it out of rote need. She’s not of our world but something supernatural, a celestial traveler who has been transfigured to look like us, and on something of a farming mission to harvest human flesh for her ilk. The urgency of her assignment renders palpable and strong as she patrols the streets of Glasgow in an austere white van asking for directions (uncannily similar to Joe’s locomotive panderings).
When a young lad bites on her invite, more interested in her soft voluptuousness and insouciant benevolence than a lift, she is ever dutiful to ask the quarry if he has anyone waiting for them at home. A yes, and Laura abruptly drives off. A no, and they are whisked with the promise of sex to a nondescript house where the comely object of their desire sashays across a watery black linoleum floor shedding articles of clothing while her pursuant, hard-on in hand, follows suit only to become sucked under and into another realm as if a prehistoric beast caught in a tar pit. What that “other” place is is abstract, yet clearly a web of demise where the ensnared food is suspended in stasis until processed into a neat liquid extract—you could think of it as your typical Midwest packing plant where tins of meaty delicacy are transported across the galaxy.
The true horror in what these women do as they stalk and circle isn’t so much the harmful downfall that awaits their targets, but that they feign compassion and interest as a tool of the entrapment. It goes beyond just the lure of carnal pleasure; it’s something that promises a real human connection. How many predators on the plains or the tundra actually hang out and have a beer with their food before eating it? But therein lies the moral divide. Joe’s end is strictly hedonistic—sure, you could make an argument for disorder or addiction, but no matter how often von Trier and his actors tell us Joe is a victim of something beyond her power, Joe seems well in control as she willfully leaves her young child at home to engage in the erotic extreme du jour, or looks on innocently and without culpability as the wife of one of her lovers storms her flat with three young boys in tow. It makes it hard to get onboard with her compulsive consumption as she rides through the film an unapologetic libertine bearing the same sympathetic branding a one-percenter might, if fallen on hard times and seeking handouts so they can continue to subside on caviar and champagne.
But Laura is far more realistically formidable, frightening, and understandable. There’s a quiet dignity in what she does—the recognition that she must do what is normally considered unconscionable to carry on. It’s a form of survival (as we know from the book, and not so much the movie, Laura is an enslaved underling living in hideous conditions back home, but allowed freedom on Earth as long as she toils and makes her quota), and while we would never cut a serial killer any empathetic slack for similar rooting and weeding, readers and moviegoers often make exceptions for superhuman entities, like vampires and the beyond, where the more human they are in form and mind, the more accepting we become to their need to feed—on us.
Claire Denis’s under-received 2001 chiller, Trouble Every Day, is a piquant litmus test. The alluring Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo play humans that have an affliction, or a disease, that during heightened sexual arousal turns them into something of a vampire or a frenzied cannibal (I’m not sure if in the decade plus following the film’s release that there has yet to be a consensus on what exactly they are and what ails them). Though driven by a continual heady desire, much like Joe, there is nothing calculated in their pursuit. It’s an unbridled, infectious eruption beyond their own. Laura simply leverages such desires within and against her targets, while Joe might lay claim to such an inner mania, but what drives the ‘troubled’ is primal and much more akin to Marilyn Chamber’s ingenue vampire in David Cronenberg’s Rabid (itself an ironic foreshadowing of the porn star’s notorious turn in Insatiable three years later) or Nastassja Kinski in Cat People. You could even throw in the flesh ripping hordes propelled by a rage virus in 28 Days Later.
The intriguing thread that runs through both Trouble and Under the Skin is that the women are paired with an apt man-helper who’s ever on call. If a conquest goes awry or there needs to be a ‘cleaner’ styled mop up, these speed-dial aides are on the spot faster than the police or Tarantino’s Wolf. In the case of Trouble, the husband of Dalle’s afflicted woman dutifully tidies up after her carnivorous interludes and makes the human complicity factor both more tolerable and understandable from an emotional perspective, but also makes it more acutely amoral and disturbing. In Skin, Laura’s motorcycle rider is more of a handler, in on her every move. In both cases, the men are fully rooted in the cause, but woe be the Johnny-on-the-spot who gets too close without being an insider, like the slacker errand boy to a ‘vegan’ vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s quirky new Only Lovers Left Alive, who unwisely spends the night with Ava’s (Mia Wasikowska) succubus and is sucked dry by the morning.
Joe herself has her own enablers. The man who takes her virginity and later father’s a child with her is somewhat complacent to her carnal wanderings. Then there are the three lovers that provide her with the perfect symphonic harmony of fulfillment, each one scratching a different yen in her busy day of multitasked interludes. They all serve with ardor and on command, some less reluctant, and some with bittersweetness, but they all serve—except the sadist Joe submits to.
The uneasy appeal Nymphomaniac, Under the Skin, and Trouble Every Day (Dalle’s character is far more compelling and mysterious than Gallo’s) lies in the women’s power to leverage their sexuality to take control, if even lethally so. In the reverse, with man as the predator—sexually or otherwise—there is a long standing pattern of history where assertion of power is imminent domain. Think of Dracula or the like. He’s a lone wolf, virility moving in the shadows, and if he ever needed a helper, it’s never a strapping lad or shapely woman but a deformed hunchback with a hobble and a lisp. Joe and Laura are glass ceiling breakers. They take, they consume, and they push our way of thinking about sex, crime, and power.