This article is a contribution to The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.
Scarlett Johansson may be carving out for herself the unlikeliest of film niches: the lead in an unpredictable yet seemingly heterosexual romantic sci-fi film that nevertheless works formally and thematically to mine queer desire. I’ve spoken before about how smart and beautiful I find Her (2013), where her disembodied Samantha is riddled with questions that exceed narrativized notions of monogamous relationships and whose denouement — with her insistence on existing in the liminal spaces allowed by our day-to-day lives — speaks directly to ways in which Spike Jonze’s ethereal romantic allegory stretches itself to imagine what queer desire might look like. In this light, Under the Skin (2014) emerges as an odd, cold-blooded twin sister to Jonze’s warm-hued tragic romance.
In both, Johansson stretches herself to create two nonhuman characters within a series of performative limitations. In Samantha, she just had her breathy voice to evoke an ever curious and sexy OS. In Glazer’s unnamed alien protagonist, she’s required to eschew dialogue for most of the film, and find in her jagged edged-gestures a creature as curious as Samantha, but far more precariously driven in her attempts to socialize. Both characters, of course, represent complementary attempts at crafting and understanding queer romantic and sexual possibilities. Slowly becoming aware of their surroundings, both characters become fascinated with the men they meet, but while Her — with its sun-dappled cinematography and warm electronic soundtrack — is interested in issues of intimacy and relationships, Under the Skin — with its icy lensing and dissonant score — is in favor of mining the way in which sexual desire lures and consumes us.
Thus, while Samantha emerges as an advocate for a deterritorializing image of desire (she’ll be everywhere and nowhere once she leaves Theo), Glazer’s protagonist appears instead as a dangerously alluring cruiser. There’s another way in which I could easily have paired Glazer’s film with Stranger by the Lake: (2013) both films explore the seductive danger of casual hookups, but while Guiraudie’s film goes for explicit sex amidst an allegorical take on “SEX=DEATH”, Glazer channels in Johansson a vision of cruising that courts the performative aspect of picking up tricks (with the actress quickly turning her charm on and off as needed) while representing the tenuous if electrifying connection that brings two strangers together; Johansson’s alien is keen to pick up only those men that won’t be easily missed, and her seduction is all the more successful for the way she wavers between charm incandescent and cool indifference.
Indeed, the moments that stuck with me after catching Under the Skin were the ultra-stylized scenes wherein Johansson’s alien beckons her prey into an all-consuming blackness, leaving only their discarded clothes behind:
Nude men slowly descending into a viscous blackness, their empty expressions as vacant as the darkness that envelops them; Johansson’s wry seduction feeling as impersonal as the beautifully inert darkness which surrounds her — these images posit a perfect distillation of the film’s dueling themes of crippling isolation and sexual desire. That they are shot so distinctly from the scenes that come both before and after (which aim for a grainy, “realistic” feel) makes them even more haunting. We are transported to a place outside the everyday. Punctuated by Mica Levi’s dizzying score, the men’s hypnotized faces (not to mention their tumescent penises) make these recurring interludes mirror Johansson’s ability to instill in us dread and desire.
That image of Johansson walking away with the man half submerged is my favorite shot of the film; while Glazer recreates it for us twice later in the film (with Scarlett in profile on the left and later on the right, respectively), it is this shot, framed as it is to locate us as if we, too, were following her, that encapsulates the film for me. At times dizzying, at times utterly seductive, at others creepily terrifying, the film is never not in total control of its audience, leading us on, urging us to undress and go deeper and deeper, until we lose ourselves in its dangerous beauty, swallowing us whole.