Late last month, The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote a profile of Scarlett Johansson. Maybe you heard about it; if you did, it was probably not in terribly complimentary terms. Slate’s Katy Waldman called out its “inappropriate-uncle creepiness”; Talking Points Memo’s Kay Steiger deemed it “gross”; over at The New Republic, Esther Berger crowned it “the worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker.” The problem with Lane’s fawning, empty piece, in a nutshell, is that it’s basically a highbrow version of a Maxim or Esquire cover story: Lane’s thesis is that Scarlett Johansson is super-duper hot, though couched in dressed-up verbiage like “Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh” and “using nothing but the honey of her voice” and “she seemed to be made from champagne.” What makes the whole piece particularly irritating is that there are interesting things to be said about Johansson right now; she has two movies coming out today which couldn’t be further apart on the modern movie-making spectrum. And, compellingly, one of them can be read as a kind of tacit commentary on precisely the kind of empty objectification that the Lane profile traffics in so freely.
The giant Johansson movie out today is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest (and funniest) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Johansson taking on the role of KGB agent-turned-superhero Black Widow for the third time. She makes her first appearance roaring up in a sports car, rolling down the window, and purring “Hey, boys” at Steve Rogers and his new buddy; the scene is a bit of a kick for those who’ve seen her other new movie, Under the Skin, since it almost plays like a summary of that picture’s setup.
In contrast to the giant pre-summer blockbuster tentpole that is CA:TWS, Under the Skin is a wildly experimental sci-fi art movie, in the vein of something like Behind the Black Rainbow (and if you haven’t heard of that movie, chances are you’ll find yourself plenty befuddled by this one). Johansson plays Laura, an alien being who spends the bulk of the picture cruising around Glasgow in a white van, picking up single men. Those who join her think they’re in for a quick hook-up with a thrill-seeking hottie; instead, she brings them back to her apartment, where they are consumed by a wet, velvety darkness. And then she goes back out to the van, to find another victim.
Laid out in those terms, the film sounds like what several cynics have dubbed it: an art-house Species. The difference is that Under the Skin is an exploration and subversion of the unstated theme of Species and its ilk: the fear of female sexuality, and the fantasy scenarios that are all tied up in those fears. The cruising sequences are scored (by first-timer Mica Levi) with a quiet dread, emphasizing the notion of a predator tracking her prey — a predator who can never be entirely satiated.
Yet the visual language is one of pornographic promise. Much has been made of director Jonathan Glazer’s decision to shoot many of the cruising scenes guerrilla style, using real passerby who were unaware they were being filmed, or that they were talking to an international sex symbol. What fewer have mentioned — or have been perhaps afraid to admit an awareness of — is how consciously the documentary-style framing and editing in those scenes recalls so-called “gonzo” or “reality” porn, which clumsily employs handheld cameras and faux-amateur performers to enact convoluted situations like, oh, a ridiculously hot woman picking up random dudes on the street and devouring them sexually. Like most pornography, such clips feed off a fantasy: of mere circumstance placing horny young men in the sights of a sexy girl who shares their devil-may-care desire for the casual hook-up.
That’s the daydream, but a dream too good to be true; in reality, such a woman would have to be up to something, right? And out of that, the horror element is born; in Under the Skin, these drooling men follow Johansson’s Laura through her space, seemingly oblivious to the entirety of their surroundings, focused only on the clothes she is shedding with agonizing lethargy. And they do the same, leaving themselves nude and vulnerable before they are disposed of; the fear of that vulnerability is one of the many sly themes of the film, particularly when the tables are turned late in the film, adding extra subtextual dimension to a fairly typical “woman in peril” scenario.
That moment comes at the conclusion of a fascinating third act, in which Laura becomes, it seems, aware of herself. There is a remarkable moment when, in a coital panic, she sits on the edge of her bed, a lamp in her hand, and peers between her legs; in another, she stares at her naked body in the mirror for a good long while, trying to understand it and its power. Of course, the sequence is framed in such a way that we can do the same; the fact that so much of the advance buzz on the film has been centered on Johansson’s full-frontal nudity has the interesting side effect of making those drawn in by that factoid into surrogates for the stumbling droolers who succumb to her charms onscreen. And in that New Yorker profile, Lane seems comically oblivious to the fact that his verbal caresses of her “barely veiled” backside and the “contours of her reputation” place him firmly in that undistinguished camp.
Under the Skin is out today in limited release. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out today in wide release.