Can an actor be an auteur? We use the term to characterize directors or writer-directors who explore a recognizable personal theme in their films. But it seems to me that in her last three feature releases, Scarlett Johansson has created a sort of auteurist trilogy – call it the Scarjo Exploration of Otherness.
Setting aside her recent supporting role in The Winter Soldier, part of her ongoing Marvel franchise stint as a conventional female super-hero, in each of these films (Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy), Johansson puts her impressive set of classically female attributes in the service of a specific exploration. Whether it’s intuitively or calculatedly feminist, her career path seems bent on proving that there’s more to a woman than what meets the eye. Her choice of star vehicles is like a personal essay on the subject of “What is a heroine?”
In Her, as a futuristic computer’s operating system named Samantha, Johansson embodies traditional sexiness and male-objectified Woman-as-Girl-Friday femininity despite the complete absence of what would generally be considered her greatest asset: that face and that body. Operating System Samantha makes both Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and the audience fall in love with her on the sheer force of character and personality: a triumph of the feminine spirit, sans the traditional artillery, in which ScarJo bypasses the usual objectification created by “the male gaze.”
According to the subversive dictates of Spike Jonze’s screenplay, this is a romantic dramedy (and a conscious critique of rom-coms) in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy is abandoned, since girl has redefined herself as an autonomous entity in no need of coupling. In the end, when Samantha morphs into a gender-transcendent, post-singularity super-intelligence, we’re asked to empathize with her choice. And while we, being human, are certainly sympathetic to poor Theo, we do.
In Jonathan Glazer’s profoundly disturbing Under the Skin, a mysterious and beautiful antagonistic-as-protagonist story, Scarjo again challenges the limits of audience empathy, wreaking havoc with our sense of “heroine.” We’re put in the uncomfortable position of being asked to root for the monster in a horror movie: As an efficient extraterrestrial wearing a human body as disguise, Johansson starts out in creepy predator mode, dispassionately dispatching a series of hapless male victims, her alien agenda obscure and never explained.
But her near-deadpan performance, a subtly nuanced evocation of otherworldliness, begins to win us over. Eventually, the alien is thrown off her game by a whiff of compassion for humanity, and as her character begins to exhibit vulnerability, we find ourselves caring for this inhuman killer. We’re alarmed when the female alien ends up herself a victim of a human male predator – ironically, she’s been undone by her glimmers of empathy for us.
Here, Johansson dares the audience to identify with her, manipulating the artifice inherent in the relationship between female star and audience, one darkly mirrored by the female alien’s relationship with her victims. It’s a play on, and reversal of, expectations. True to form and intent, Glazer and Johansson manage to leach the prurient interest out of the first film in which Scarjo appears entirely naked. As with Her’s “The Body has no body” gambit, Scarjo’s femininity is on display and yet weirdly neutered, just as her character is revealed yet finally unknowable.
In this regard, Luc Besson’s spectacularly ridiculous Lucy, the last panel in the Scarjo triptych, is a further variation on the same theme. For the third time, Johansson inhabits a role that defies our perception of how a female protagonist is supposed to act. Unlike the mechanism found in most action programmers, this check-your-brain-at-the-door film, as entertaining as it is nonsensical, doesn’t even clarify what its heroine ultimately wants, let alone define her as any relatable archetype.
Lucy starts with the star as victim, a not-so-bright party girl turned drug mule. With a black market wonder drug in her system, Lucy soon grows into a vengeful superhuman killing machine - a darker criminal incarnation of her Black Widow super-heroine persona. Eventually she becomes an organic super-computer capable of manipulating time and space, and upon reaching 100% of her brain’s capacity, (hello, Her) transforms herself into pure consciousness.
Who, or what, are we left to root for, beyond Besson’s bravura popcorn pyrotechnics? The role of Lucy may be about as far out as Johansson wants to go. Largely due to the incoherence of the script, we’re left not so much participating in our heroine’s wildly unconventional adventure as bearing uncomprehending witness to it.
But the film seems the logical capper to a series of deliberately provocative reversals on the standard contract that’s struck between a female star and her audience. This auterist actress is taking us, by the set of that lucious lower lip, to realms beyond likable, fuckable, and formidable, and in doing so is redefining our perception of what a heroine can be.