imageOne day soon, Scarlett Johansson will be regarded as the most important female performer in cinema. That is not say that she will ever hold the title of best living actress. Even after Meryl Strep passes, there will always be a middle-aged British woman that sets the critics to full swoon through the portrayal of a royal, either dead or alive. Johansson will occupy a different position all together. She is now our premiere thespian goddess, the woman who can enthrall legions of fan boys in a comic book flick, then turn around and dominate a smaller, “serious” film.

She has recently turned in a trio of performances that affirm this. In her reprise of the role of The Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Johansson completed Cap’s thawing out with a smart, sensuous, athletic performance that featured her posterior as the most lethal weapon in the Marvel Universe. In Her, Johansson used her voice and her personality to create the most full-bodied character never seen and reduced Joaquin Phoenix to a supporting presence.

Then came Under The Skin, a minimalist art house science fiction film, which is the flip side of Her, in that Johansson’s flesh is on full display, even as long stretches pass with little or no dialogue. It is too easy to say that Johansson is the best thing in Under The Skin. She is very nearly the only thing in a movie that makes the audience work rather hard in understanding the action while understanding the thick Scottish brogue of almost every character that is not Scarlett. Johansson is an alien that has come to Earth for unknown reasons, a cosmic cousin of the David Bowie character in The Man Who Fell To Earth. A mysterious motorcycle rider (creator, handler, gamekeeper – we never learn despite his repeated appearances) retrieves the dead body of a prostitute from a field and that is the identity Johansson assumes. She stalks men from the driver’s seat of a white van, engaging in awkward conversation, while offering them a lift and perhaps more. Her looks are the sweet honey of a Venus fly trap, and those who submit find themselves chasing after the embodiment of a perfect encounter that ultimately consumes them.

The film has an almost documentary feel as if the camera is passively showing the mating and eating habits of a species as it develops from fledgling to full grown, but we humans always hold special fascination for stray space creatures. Johansson’s gaze increasingly turns to women as role models rather than men as sustenance. Compassion and then passion prove her undoing. The discovery of possessing a vagina is stupefying; what men believe it is for is horrifying. Nature is as merciless as the creature is at the beginning of the movie, and the species that cannot adapt must perish.

Under The Skin has been wildly overpraised. Enemy, released earlier this year, is a superior art house genre film. Still, credit director Jonathan Glazer for building this project around Johansson. She makes the film worth seeing.

Three stars.

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