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The Women in the City: "Love in the Afternoon" & "Under the Skin"

Two fleeting scenes, two different films, two different cities at two different times, yet somehow the women exert the same pull in both.
James Lattimer

What is it about the women in the city? Two fleeting scenes, two different films, two different cities at two different times, yet somehow the women exert the same pull in both. The first city is Paris, it’s the summer of 1972, one final moral tale, a sun-dappled boulevard lined with chic boutiques. The second city is Glasgow, let’s say winter 2012, a drab concrete shopping zone replete with high street chains, hardly the most alien of places. In both cities, it is seemingly only the women who inhabit their streets, the camera cutting smoothly between them looking in shop windows, conversing, walking with purpose, even as the odd man still occasionally wanders into the frame. The women we see in each case are carefully associated with a particular gaze. In Paris, this gaze belongs to a dapper gentleman in his early thirties, decked out in a smart jacket and a rakish turtleneck, the camera returning to him again and again to remind us he’s actively surveying the women before him. In Glasgow, it’s only after a while we actually see who’s watching these women: a single, unblinking eye, a gaze presented devoid of features yet still oddly harried, fading to black with the approach of night.

What do these two gazes tell us about the women in the city? Our Parisian man is not so hard to decipher, his thoughts being conveniently verbalised in the voiceover that gives a running commentary on his wandering eye. As he puts it, it’s all just a game: the women test their charms on him, as he tests his on them, although it’s oddly conspicuous how they do this without ever meeting his gaze. An endless stream of attractive young Parisian women strolling in the sun, perfect figures, perfect style, perfect coiffures, almost the stuff of daydreams. And yet even in his daydreams, he can’t quite hide his frustration at only being able to look, not touch. Perhaps the most telling image then is of a woman’s legs, his gaze cutting them off from the rest of her body to create a form of beauty blissfully unrestrained by anything specific. For as he tells us himself, the beauty he sees in these women in the city is merely an extension of that of his wife. A perfectly delusional way to have his cake and eat it: when he embraces her, he embraces all of them; as he possesses her, he must possess all of them too. So this is a gaze of desire, of self-deception, of control. These women in the city are not women, they are woman herself, merely broken down into different, equally controllable permutations.

In Glasgow too, there’s a woman in the city willing to show her legs, although it’s notable here that they remain attached to her body. Unlike its Paris counterpart, this gaze is interested in the whole of things, not merely specific parts or types. So it takes in all of them in turn: thin women, fat women, older women, disabled women, women in headscarves, working women, women with children, women begging. But what is the source of this interest and what does it serve? As we have seen, it’s easy to discern the game being played in Paris, whose rules remain painfully unchanged for the rest of the film. At this point however, we have nothing more to go on but the haunted gaze of a single eye: where does its fear come from, what has it already seen? Until now, this eye has only ever had men in its sights, viewing them with a gaze at once sexualised and non-sexual, like that of a prostitute forced to learn her trade with only a monitor for guidance. It has been a gaze of power; predatory, scientific, professional. But now this gaze collapses into something new in the face of all these women in the city, the predatory and the professional falling away to be replaced with something that might be termed recognition. It is looking at these women to catalogue them, to understand what it is they are, to grasp this thing in all in many manifestations. These women once again melt into woman herself in this gaze, its fear and confusion arising from the gradual realisation that this too must be the body it inhabits.

So these two gazes do indeed flow together in these women in the city, entirely distinct, yet both performing the same function: breaking down all these myriad women into the one, perfectly graspable woman, even if neither can quite make sense of the archetype they’ve now created. Perhaps this archetypal woman is just too unstable a construct, a too convenient delusion, just too many disparate bodies itching under the skin. But at least they find consensus in one other matter, although the routes they take getting there diverge. For both of these gazes agree that the women in front of them are beautiful, the sort of beauty that can prey on the mind. In Paris, we cannot help but see this beauty in front of us, while having it verbalised for us too. All those beautiful women in summer wandering through the daydream of a damp autumn day, a wistful afternoon in a café, a distracted stare. In Glasgow, it’s harder to see this beauty at first, concealed as it is beneath rolls of fat, wrinkled skin and heavy clothing, there’s no voice here to tell us that what we are seeing is beautiful. Yet as night falls, the street lamps come on and the women in the city become bathed in their glow, it is as if this gaze can no longer distinguish between them, as they fuse together into a shimmering mass of limbs, movements and gestures. In their combination, they too are beautiful, their beauty finally giving birth to the very gaze that has been watching them all along: a brief moment of solace, kinship or even hope, soon to be enveloped once again in black.


Eric RohmerJonathan Glazer
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