Violent Femme

Violent Femme

How Scarlett Johansson learned to become aloof from her own seductiveness.


Within the past twelve months, Scarlett Johansson has been an alluring and rapidly expanding artificial intelligence in Her; a seductively murderous extraterrestrial in Under the Skin; and now, in Lucy, a superintelligent, post-sexual, sometimes deadly freak of evolution. For a woman who is two inches shorter than Woody Allen, this is some résumé. It’s obvious that the game but vulnerable waif of 2003’s Lost in Translation did not just grow up but has gone on to transcend the merely human, and in record time. Why this should have happened isn’t so clear.

Given the disparities in financing and distribution among the films I’ve just mentioned—which vary from the artisanal to the mega-industrial—as well as the differences among them in style and tone, it would be a mug’s game to rush into defining Johansson’s new screen persona, let alone to speculate about the wishes and anxieties floating about in the culture that might have coalesced to create it. As a mug, though, I will observe that the change began in 2010, when Johansson first played the comic-book character Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers cycles.

Although Johansson has served as little more than an incidental attraction in these movies—much as the Black Widow herself has been mostly a supporting player in the Marvel Comics universe—these interlocked series enabled her to do something that Vicky Cristina Barcelona could not: reach a large enough percentage of the world’s population to register sociologically.

Thanks to the Black Widow role, the public for the first time entertained the possibilities of a Johansson who could not be measured precisely, there being, almost by definition, no such thing as a five-foot-three superhero. Her manner was now almost flippantly imperturbable, as befits someone who knows she can take time out for a cell-phone call while being interrogated and threatened with torture—this actually happened in The Avengers—and then, as if tired of the game, single-handedly squash her half-dozen captors. Perhaps most important of all, Johansson’s attitude toward her body changed. As the Black Widow, she treated her catalog of sexpot features as if they were so many pieces of the superhero costume: items that identified her but were something to have and use, rather than be. To the millions of fans versed in Marvel mythology, this aloofness from her own seductiveness was explicable not as the trait of a traditional femme fatale but as a consequence of bioengineering. The Black Widow’s strength, speed, endurance and longevity had been injected into her in a Soviet laboratory.

Once this image of Johansson was established—$1.5 billion in worldwide theater revenues for The Avengers did a lot of establishing—it was not improbable for other filmmakers to extend and complicate the fantasy she had come to incarnate. In Her, Johansson was unimaginably superior to the man with whom she’d been paired and ultimately felt a little bad about it; in Under the Skin, she preyed at will on the male humans around her and came to feel troubled by the practice; but in both films, she maintained the sound and appearance of an attractive woman only because that’s what men were looking for.

As the title character in Lucy, Johansson at least starts out as a female human being—one who enjoys her sexuality, too, to judge from the presence at the beginning of a boyfriend who is cute in a hulking way, though morally dubious and blatantly casual. What Johansson becomes, though, in her first starring role in a blockbuster, is the Black Widow in metamorphosis. She struggles through a violent new episode of bioengineering to attain perfect knowledge, or godhead, or maybe the ultimate hands-off romance, but at least a really nifty revenge.

An auteurist would ascribe this most extreme elaboration of her new image not only to Johansson (or her manager) but also in large measure to the writer-director of Lucy, Luc Besson. The auteurist would not be entirely unjustified. An unabashed entertainer, Besson figured out long ago that Godard was right: all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. But whereas Godard took that to mean that he could supply the minimum requirement and then stuff in as many ideas as he liked, Besson mostly wants to throw in more guns, some chases, a lot of bright colors and comic moments, and then just one Big Idea, which usually has something to do with love. To his credit, the girl (or woman) never blends into the elaborately ornamental furnishings of his cinematic contraptions but is their uncannily powerful motor, whether she’s the high-fashion assassin of La Femme Nikita, the Supreme Being of The Fifth Element (born into our world as Milla Jovovich dressed in an Ace bandage) or, for traditionalists, The Messenger’s Joan of Arc.

* * *

In Lucy, Besson has dropped Johansson into Taipei (for reasons that perhaps only the production’s accountants fully understand) and ensnared her initially none-too-bright character with a stereotypical East Asian mob: bulky men with close-cropped hair, goatees and dark suits, who dwell in glass high-rises and wash the blood from their hands with bottled Evian. These people brutalize the terrified Lucy but then, by inadvertently overdosing her on a new designer drug, make her very, very smart, as well as fearless, enormously strong, preternaturally calm and no longer quite human. Her ensuing quest for full self-realization, serious payback and a lot more drugs—it’s all the same—takes her to Paris, where she calls on the awestruck assistance of a visionary neuroscientist (Morgan Freeman, playing the wisest-man-in-the-world role that used to go to Sam Jaffe) and a roughly handsome police detective (Amr Waked), on whom Lucy plants a single kiss, just as a reminder to herself, on her rise beyond the corporeal.

These events, like the dialogue, are cheerfully preposterous (“I’m colonizing my own brain,” Lucy informs the scientist) and guiltlessly violent (“We never really die,” she explains) and go down as refreshingly as a chilled summer cocktail. (I might have said “as easily as the drug merchants’ purple crystals,” but those make Lucy slam into the ceiling and emit blasts of light from her mouth. They also elevate her cerebral activity, which would not be optimal for watching this movie.) Employing an Osterizer style, Besson mixes in a bit of exorcism movie here, a funny stock-footage montage there, a dollop of vintage Friedkin, a dash of decade-old Tarantino, pulses the concoction with the sci-fi effects button and pours for your pleasure—which might be considerable, if you feel any affinity for Johansson.

Some critics in the past have found her more winning than impressive, more pleasant than adept; but in Lucy she makes the most of every moment of her character’s transformation. During a farewell phone call to her mother, she effortlessly holds the camera throughout a very long close-up, meanwhile touching on emotions that are both flooding into Lucy as never before and quickly receding from her self-colonized brain. When saying goodbye to her roommate in Taipei—a young woman as witless as Lucy herself used to be—she solemnly offers expert medical advice (this is the sort of thing she suddenly knows) and then, more to herself than to her friend, flashes the ghost of a kindly smile. To the degree that Lucy’s adventure is even temporarily plausible, let alone engaging, it’s because Johansson makes it so.

But again, what is the import of this new screen persona that Johansson has taken on? To get some perspective on her evolving image, let me take a quick detour into an even more lucrative summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

It’s a thoroughly mediocre movie—I’m sorry to say that, considering that its predecessor in this new cycle, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was so unexpectedly good—but instructive for the way it has altered a durable, and adaptable, pop-culture myth. The Apes series began in 1963 with a satirical novel by Pierre Boulle—in effect, a late voyage of Lemuel Gulliver—that addressed anxieties about complacency and conformity in a society fascinated by its own affluence. In Boulle’s story, the apes evolved to fill a niche abandoned by humans, who had devolved through sheer passivity. By the time the first Apes movie was released in 1968, with a screenplay by the formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson and The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, the reason for humanity’s downfall had changed. The focus of the anxiety was now aggression and militarism; we humans were bomb-wielding “maniacs” who had willfully blown up our own world.

In the new Apes cycle, the anxiety has shifted again. Although the latest film still dwells on an irrational propensity toward warfare—among humans and apes alike—the immediate cause of all the trouble is genetic engineering. The satire now tells us that we are too clever and powerful for our own good when we meddle with our cells, and not nearly humble enough toward other creatures.

Perhaps this fear about the unforeseeable consequences, internal and external, of medical science tells us something about the need that Scarlett Johansson has begun to fulfill. She has become the sex kitten who repeatedly goes beyond sex—all the way to digital self-propagation in Lucy—provoking thoughts about physical urges even while escaping the body’s limits. She is the product of advanced artifice (by Soviet spymasters, American computer scientists, creepy aliens or Asian drug lords) who nevertheless feels a twinge of benevolence, or at least pity, for those of us still mired in nature. A public worried that their own bodies might be spinning out of control—from toxins, viruses, electronic self-alienation, Frankensteinian self-modification—might want to feel excited, threatened and reassured all at once about the biological future. If so, the figure of Johansson in her Black Widow iterations is answering that desire, and doing so, more often than not, with a light touch and a wink.

But if Johansson represents something new, she also represents something tried and true at the end of Lucy. As so often happens, especially with a writer-director like Besson, the movie ultimately refers only to other movies—and so it’s possible to see Johansson’s evolution in this picture as an ascent through the film-production hierarchy. When she is approaching full mental strength, for example, she finds she can relax in a chair and make time and space scroll back and forth with a flick of her hand. In effect, she’s become a film editor, sitting in front of a digital console. But when she hits 100 percent, the need for such technical tricks falls away because she is now all-pervasive, like the air that everyone breathes.

In other words, she’s attained the omnipresence of a true movie star. If you can say nothing more about Johansson in Lucy, that much is beyond dispute.

* * *

Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s wrenching, disturbing, engrossing and beautiful Rich Hill might be described as a less hopeful documentary counterpart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It gives you a yearlong slice of no fewer than three boyhoods, all taking place in the present day in the small town of the title in western Missouri (population 1,396 at the time of filming). There’s some money in the town (you know that from the big Fourth of July celebration, which includes a pie auction that attracts the high rollers), but none for the film’s subjects, who live on the desolate outskirts.

Harley, a bundle of nerves proudly ornamented with a little mustache and an eyebrow ring, lives with his grandmother—his mother’s in jail—and shows an alarming fondness for knives. Appachey, a morose, chubby, chain-smoking 13-year-old, has an exhausted and disgusted single mother, a dilapidated house strewn with garbage, a semi-submerged fondness for visual art and no friends. Andrew, by far the most energetic and appealing of the three, refuses to feel inferior because of his poverty and speaks warmly of his love for his family—though his father is incapable of holding a job, his mother is too medicated to do much of anything, and the whole family has to keep moving from house to house, town to town. Andrew knows how to heat bathwater using a clothes iron and a drip coffeemaker.

Astonishingly intimate and unflinching yet also impressionistic—it’s the kind of documentary that takes time out to gaze at a passing streetlight or observe a tractor trailer pulling into traffic—Rich Hill stays too close to its subjects to suggest any context for their poverty. It does not explain, excuse or plead. All it does is sympathize, with a full heart, as it immerses you in the lives of these boys. They are the sort of people who are sometimes called “forgotten.” Rich Hill makes them unforgettable.

* * *

Nation readers are sure to want to seek out Dan Krauss’s excellent documentary The Kill Team, which tells, from the inside, the story of two scandals. The first, which was widely reported, was the deliberate murder of civilians by US forces in Afghanistan. The second, which Krauss exposes, is the punishment meted out to young Pvt. Adam Winfield, who tried to alert the chain of command to the crimes and was thanked with an indictment for first-degree murder. Krauss is too responsible to do anything flashy with this material. He tells the story directly and in depth, then concludes with this devastating question from one of Winfield’s fellow soldiers: If you didn’t want us to kill people, why did you send us there?

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