The advance press for Under the Skin, by virtue of playing none-too-subtly upon the presence in the film of Scarlett Johansson in a state of undress, has prompted me to revisit my thoughts on Spike Jonze‘s HER, which I didn’t manage to set down when first I saw it. Johansson, of course, plays the voice of a virtual lover who never takes visual form. What I think is brilliant about Jonze’s film is precisely the way in which he exploits the recognizability of that voice, the fact that it is known to be Johansson’s, and that Johansson, who is a very fine actor, is also an acknowledged sex symbol.

I say that she never takes visual form, but actually, of course, she does, in the mind’s eye. And not just in her screen boyfriend’s (Joaquin Phoenix) but in that of anyone in the audience for whom the voice calls up objectified images of the unseen but familiar Johansson (it is surely no accident that the pronoun of the title is an object rather than a subject). The calling up of the images, in other words, calls out the truth of the matter; it is as though the famously postulated male gaze of the cinema persists even in the absence of a physical object to gaze upon. In fact, the most intensely erotic scene is the one in which the screen goes completely dark. Possibly there are viewers for whom the sound of Johansson doesn’t prompt mental images of her, but for the rest of us, it is on that dark screen that the inner gaze of the watcher fuses most completely with Twombly’s (as Phoenix’s character is called).

At that point, of course, Phoenix becomes as much of a mental an image as is Johansson. He is a familiar screen presence in his own right, and has a history of playing romantic leads; in HER he looks a bit of a schlub, attractive enough, perhaps, but not the least bit dashing; the dark screen allows our prior images of him to reemerge in an ironic way. The fact that he is surrounded in the film by other women of the movies who are considered to be desirable – a buddy, a woman he dates, and the wife he is divorcing are played respectively by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara – further ironizes the precise nature of virtuality.

They are intelligent, fully developed characters all, but Adams, who can be conventionally ravishing, is made to look pert and baby-faced, and Wilde’s features, normally striking, come off as improbably free of blemish. They seem, in short, to be just a bit virtual themselves, yet still unable to compete with the purely mental image of Johansson’s Samantha (as she is called). Mara is a different matter in that the wife is the most realistically portrayed of the women in Twombly’s life, but even she persists mainly as a fantasy figure in his memory, and perhaps she always was so, given the age difference between them and the contrast between her looks and his.

HER constitutes a far deeper critique of virtuality than is usually made when confronting the trade-off between the international, 24/7 social space of computers and the internet and the loss of face-to-face, temporally meaningful contact that it entails (the setting is vaguely in the future, and having affairs with operating systems is, apparently, an acceptable option). Jonze’s film gets to a psychology of attraction and objectification that is, in fact, independent of technology, where the moral difficulty lies as much in the mind as in the virtuality of the machine.

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