Two Drifters: How Under the Skin Contextualizes The Stranger

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In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, there is hardly a reason to like the main character. Monsieur Meursault is barren, a venerable ghost of someone we never knew, whirring the streets in search of nothing in particular before stumbling on a path that leads to his grisly conclusion. The 1942 French existentialist novel is noted for its shapeless lead character, someone without meaningful ties to society besides those most would call acquaintances. Naturally, this makes it difficult to relate to Meursault, emotionless as he is, but as any inquisitive reader would note, there is something to be gleaned from this: in the formlessness of his existence there is a story of life, God, and what it means to exist, massive questions that Camus tackles with relative leisure, staying as detached from the answers as Meursault does from his own life.

By the time Meursault meets his end, he has had a meltdown of emotions, the one thing lacking during his life. This is not a sympathetic character, much less a relatable one, but he is eerily similar to the inevitability that owns his fate, and all of ours. In his last inner-monologue before being visited by an insistent chaplin, he remarks that “everybody knows life isn’t worth living… it doesn’t matter much whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living.” In a moment of dust-clearing vulnerability, Meursault lays out what might as well be the drifter’s motto: why live while others already are?

In the final, doomed section of novel, Meursault grapples with his perception of death, to the point where he actively cheers for its swiftness. Death surrounds The Stranger on all sides, whether through a mother, an unlucky Arab man, or, in the final moment, Meursault. When looking at a novel as rigid and unforgiving as this, there are plenty of apt comparisons in the world of film. Examine Harry’s paternal crisis in Eraserhead, or the boys’ lack of satisfaction with their lives in The Virgin Suicides; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offers a similar character: dejected and downcast, but with the notable separation that she has a reason to wander. The alien’s, or Laura, as she’s called, purpose is never explained; the film sets down in the middle of her ambivalent streak, left without concrete explanation until she is confronted by the same unavoidable terminus that dominates Meursault. They are two drifters, each with a vaguely guided purpose toward some end, interrupted by the intervention of cause and effect.

One of the more unforgettable shots in  Under the Skin

One of the more unforgettable shots in Under the Skin

Beginning with the obvious, both Under the Skin and The Stranger involve a murder on a beach. It is the penultimate action preceding the end of part one in the novel, in which Meursault’s senses are scrambled by the intense heat, causing him to kill a man. In Under the Skin, there is an equally shocking though much more frightening scene: Laura attempts to seduce a lone surfer when he runs off to rescue a husband swimming after his wife in the lethal current. He succeeds in pulling him back, but the husband goes back, and dies for his wife. The surfer pants for breath, lying his face on the rocks, and Laura approaches with what seems to be concern, then knocks his head with a stone.

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In both instances there is an implied loss of innocence, or fated mistake that causes the rest of the character’s story to ripple. In Meursault’s case, it is his undoing: a serious crime he is destined to be committed for, though only a product of fate in his mind: nothing to get hung about. Under the Skin’s moment is slightly grayer, but it may be the most affecting moment in the film. An infant rests on the sand above the water, the child of the husband and wife we presume, and later learn, have drowned. Laura may or may not see it, but she does not intervene, and when the film cuts back to the screaming child, alone, in the dark, there are no words to describe the helpless feeling. This in a film that utilizes scenes of torture, death, rape, and literal shedding of human skin, but a screaming child sears into people: not Laura. Therein lies the key to Under the Skin and The Stranger’s similarity: they tell stories of defeat, of crushing blows to morality, the kind that justify abandonment of hope, a god, the afterlife; anything other than the horror of right now.

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Meursault’s always-difficult to pin down state of mind is awash in contradictions. He accepts nearly any offer that comes his way in lieu of a genuine response, such as when his girlfriend Marie asks to marry him and he replies with “sure”, but they are still decisions. Before his death, he realizes he no longer lusts for Marie, because she will be of no interest to him in death: revealing thoughts, certainly, but still choices. Laura is just as unfeeling, but imbued with a purpose that somewhat dramatically distinguishes her: she’s out for blood. A creature from some unnamed place, all that’s known is that she travels Scotland looking for men to seduce, bringing them into her fold and extinguishing them for yet another unexplained purpose. It’s not a brutal death, but it is uncompassionate; she lacks in the same basic feelings, needs, and desires as Meursault.

The comparison here is not to say that Under the Skin is a perfect parallel to The Stranger, but that it highlights qualities in Meursault that further illuminate his perplexing behaviour. Why is he so unfeeling? What past informs his complacent reactions? Under the Skin becomes far more interesting when Laura begins to rebel against her impulses, sparing victims and participating in human relationships, for which she pays dearly. In both works, there is no explanation. An alien touches down, and a man drifts through his life; beyond this there are moments of horrifying wrath toward the innocent, seen in Under the Skin’s marroning of the infant. There is a kind of helpless finality to the scene that perfectly encapsulates Meursault’s condition. He may have been that crying child, robbed of a world, or he may be like Laura: someone who has seen the gentle indifference of the world first-hand, and decided to call it a brother.

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