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ScarJo finds perfect fit for opaque persona

Bombshell creates interesting contrast with robotic roles in sci-fi flicks

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Scarlett Johansson is clearly a woman. In fact, going by the lad-magazine headlines, the voluptuous, honey-voiced star could be described as "all woman."


Maybe that's why it's so intriguing that Johansson has recently taken on roles in which she plays a non-woman. That is, her character might look or sound like a woman -- and what a woman! -- but in reality she's sneakily, sexily, dangerously something else. She's either non-human or anti-human or post-human.

The latest, most mainstream example of this bait-and-switch gambit can be seen in Lucy, helmed by France's Eurotrash auteur Luc Besson. In this sci-fi action flick, Johansson briefly plays an actual woman-woman, a bedraggled party girl named Lucy who is coerced into becoming a drug mule. When an accidental overdose of a designer drug unlocks the untapped potential of her mind, Lucy transforms into a cool, calculating hyper-evolved killer.

There's a jolt of silly cinematic pleasure in watching ScarJo levitate, teleport and torture Taipei drug lords, all while looking absolutely fabulous. Because yes, even when Lucy's giant omniscient brain is supposedly concerned with other things -- the beginnings of life, the origin of the universe, the conquest of space and time -- she still manages to kit herself out in a skin-tight Escada dress and Louboutin stilettos. She's superhuman, with just a touch of supermodel.

Johansson, like her character, seems to be operating at 100 per cent of her star capacity here. Lucy is out-muscling Hercules at the box office, one more addition to a lineup of 2014 films that prove strong female leads can open movies. And with a storyline that starts with Johansson's luscious beauty and turns it to such lethal effect, Lucy is being hailed by some reviewers as a critique of Hollywood's use and misuse of female pulchritude.

I don't know. Looking to Lucy for a feminist message seems a tad optimistic. Besson has always had a fondness for weaponized women. Lucy is sister-in-arms to the anti-heroines of Nikita and Leon and to Besson's rocker-chick version of Joan of Arc. Maybe these women can be seen as kick-ass expressions of female empowerment. Or maybe they're just part of Besson's girl-and-gun fetish, part of a male fantasy that mixes desire and dread.

Johansson's status as an icon of female beauty gets a much more subversive twist in two other movies, Under the Skin (released on DVD last week) and Her. Under the Skin, from British director Jonathan Glazer, is an art-house film about an alien who takes on human appearance, in this case the gorgeously fleshy form of a brunette Scarlett Johansson. The alien drives around Glasgow in a white van trolling for lone men, who are seduced in an eerie black room and never seen again.

Some of these scenes started with real-life encounters with unsuspecting regular guys, who were obviously hypnotized by Johansson's face and whose interactions with her were captured by hidden cameras. (The men later signed release forms.) There's something deliciously apt and disturbing about this set-up. I mean, if you were engineering a being with the sole purpose of luring gormless Glaswegian men to an enigmatic and untimely end, you would probably wind up with something that looked a lot like Scarlett Johansson.

The film turns on our obsession with the surfaces of cinematic celebrity, Johansson's opaque persona -- flat-voiced, dead-eyed, hollowed-out -- reflecting nothing but our own need. In Under the Skin she's not so much a sexy woman as a skin-deep replicant of a sexy woman. Though the film offers Johansson's first big nude scenes, fan forums aren't exactly buzzing about them, probably because the final effect is chilly, unsettling, oddly anti-erotic.

Her, as its title suggests, also references some kind of elemental Johansson femaleness, except that here the star is represented not by her face or her body but by her voice. Working that characteristic mix of girly and husky, she plays Samantha, a sentient operating system designed to meet the user needs of twitchy introvert Joaquin Phoenix. Samantha is designed to please, but she's also designed to evolve, and she eventually evolves beyond him.

This unexpected film starts with a runaway male fantasy but then morphs into a wistful, melancholy little tale of male heartbreak. (Some viewers have interpreted Her as Jonze's coded apology to his former wife, filmmaker Sofia Coppola.)

Scarlett Johansson, like most young female Hollywood stars, has had to trade on her beauty. But she might finally be getting to a point where she can do something interesting with it. In this recent run of strange hybrid sci-fi roles, ScarJo uses her bombshell image to blow things up, including our expectations.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 D12

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