There have been three Scarlett Johansson movies in a row about the moral complexities of physical attraction and human relations in the virtual age, and beyond: Don Jon, in which she compares unfavorably, in the eyes of a boyfriend, with online porn; Her, in which she is the voice of a sultry operating system who has relationships with multiple men; and, now, UNDER THE SKIN, in which she appears to be a flesh-and-blood seductress, but is something else under the, well, skin.
Johansson is, as an actor, brilliant, and brilliantly cast, in all three, because she is a greatly intelligent artist who knows full well the extent to which her persona is rooted in an old-fashioned, yet oddly radical, sex appeal. Her career began, after all, when she played two fantasy figures for older men, in Lost in Translation and The Girl With the Pearl Earring, for each of which she was nominated and competed against herself for an Academy Award. The template was established for a serious performer who creates both fully blown characters and mental images; there has been from the start something auto-replicating, and a little unreal, about her. Whether by design or cultural happenstance, each film in the current triptych plays upon the irony of her presence in it: as a cinematic object of desire rejected for internet objects in Don Jon, a purely aural object in Her who conjures a sexualized image, and in UNDER THE SKIN, her real body denuded, for a time, of both clothes and human personality.
The credits for UNDER THE SKIN appear (similarly – interestingly – as they do in the other films) against a dark screen on which they manifest as a white flicker; in the current one, a point of light appears and draws the eyes gradually into a strange and creepily arresting movie. Based on a novel by Michael Faber that I have not read, UNDER THE SKIN is a sort of compound of Species, about a homicidal alien, and Monster, about a real life serial killer who happened to have been a woman. The Johansson figure – called The Female in the credits – drives around Scotland luring men into her vehicle under the guise of asking them for directions, taking them to an abandoned house, and drowning them, not quite metaphorically, in the liquid desire they feel for the stolen epidermis that she is wearing.
After one greatly moving encounter, which dramatizes the maxim that beauty is skin deep, or in the eye of the beholder, she sees herself in a mirror, which prompts in her a moral impulse separate from whatever type of creature she is (it is never specified that she is an extraterrestrial). The Female becomes at that point a sympathetic animal, and, lest we flatter ourselves that we as a species are uniquely moral, it is through the most despicable of human behaviors that the film is forced to its end. It matters less what we are than whether we have had the fundamental realization of love as something above and beyond desire.
The uncanny pretense of Johansson’s acting, the subtle hand of director Jonathan Glazer, the spooky music – a soundscape, really – by Mica Levin, the unsettled eye of cinematographer Daniel Landin, on both urban grit and the natural world, and Walter Campbell’s oblique screenplay, conspire to draw from the ambiguity of plot and image an absolute clarity of insight.
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