Scarlett Johansson is an alien. I first noticed her as the gawky teenaged misfit in Ghost World then as the object of Billy Bob Thornton’s chaste affections in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of late her programme of world domination has involved a brief creative partnership with Woody Allen, a number of odd bathroom mirror selfies, a spunky anti-Paltrow fixture in the superhero maxi-franchise The Avengers and interminable and politically suspect adverts for SodaStream. And yet in the midst of the busy vortex of a career that is in danger of spiralling into the celebrity stratosphere, there are still these playful excursions into art-house territory. Earlier this year she voiced Samantha – taking over from Samantha Morton – in Spike Jonze’s Her, a silky Siri whose initial PA/best friend with booty call benefits becomes the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s metrosexual affections. The flimsy elevator pitch premise is imbued with something more, partly because of the shift of focus in the third act to Johansson’s rapidly developing persona. In a coy joke, Samantha begins as a happy female slave – a Jeeves to Phoenix’s Bertie – but as she learns and communes with her own kind this intimacy, which a star of Johansson’s magnitude trades in, is superseded by the altitude she is soaring. This trajectory could be matched by an audience member who recalls her best friend role in Ghost World but now sadly recognises her unattainable ascension in the current culture.
If Jonze’s film is a more-in-sadness-than-anger meditation on the revenge of ineffable female glamour, then Under the Skin features a nightmare retelling of the same star quality. Here Johansson is a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van searching for young men who will not be missed. The cold and unattractive grit of the setting and the impenetrable accents contrast with Johansson’s apparently vulnerable slumming. Playing against her glamour, she adopts a BBC Radio One English rather than utterly other-worldly American and sports a fur coat and a mop of dark brown hair. And yet she is warm and inviting, friendly, unthreatening and fatally attractive. It is once trapped that she can apply her mesmerizing charm, tempting her victims to their doom.
In his first film in a decade, Jonathan Glazer has produced a darkly fascinating work of art. A Roegish trip, the film is an intense abstract horror story. Time and again our sympathy for and fascination of Johansson are manipulated and provoked. Even as we are aware of her antagonistic role and essential vicious otherness, we can’t help but feel for her as she falls over in the street, or is bustled into a nightclub. She is – after all – Scarlett Johansson. She is the misogynist’s wet dream: a bewitching femme fatale, a destroyer of young men, venereal disease made flesh, a prick tease whose ultimate punishment fulfils an atavistic nastiness the film doesn’t shy away from. Sexiness is the opposite of sex, becoming, like Oscar Wilde’s cigarette, the perfect pleasure by being utterly unsatisfying (and incapable of satisfaction).
And yet as Glazer’s underrated Birth explored the obsidian angles of a woman grieving, so Under the Skin escapes the vegetarian parable of the original novel and becomes an utterly beguiling retracing of the word glamour back to its witchy origins.
Watch the trailer: