I first saw Her in the middle of the polar vortex. It was the middle of the day, and I was in the middle of a break-up. My soon-to-be-ex and I were on a trip to Chicago, and had some hours to kill before our flight home. At least this way, we wouldn’t be able to yell or weep or say the worst things. There is something excoriating about sitting in the dark next to someone you love, watching a movie about love, knowing both stories are going to end badly. At one point, I leaned over and whispered: “I’m just going to sit a couple of rows back, okay?” He nodded without looking at me. I took my coat and moved, trying not to cry. I watched the back of his head and, after a while, the film beyond it.
For months, I didn’t know how to describe the feeling of that day, tromping through snow, holding each other’s elbows to keep from slipping on ice, exchanging words about the movie to distract each other from the void opening up between us. Several months later, a bunch of friends dragged me out to see Under the Skin. I was still deep in the black hole of heartbreak, so I hadn’t heard of it and had no idea what sort of film I was walking into. It felt incredibly slow, its eeriness gradually building to a harrowing crescendo. I didn’t cry. But sitting once more in a dark theater, I recognized something about being a woman, about the sublimity and the grief of whatever it is that divides me from men.
It is not incidental that both films star Scarlett Johansson, our current epitome of womanliness. In Spike Jonze’s Her, Johansson is the voice of Samantha, a computer operating system who has gained sentience. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a loose adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, she plays an alien who wears a woman’s body. Johansson seems at first a curious fit for these two science-fiction films. Her physical presence — Woody Allen calls it “sexually overwhelming,” a “zaftig humidity” — is the polar opposite of the brittle muscularity of sci-fi heroines played by Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton. But that’s exactly the point. Both these films pretend to be about science fiction — the anxiety of technology, the threat of the alien — but are really about the creation of a woman. Her makes a woman almost entirely out of Johansson’s voice. And Under the Skin makes a woman almost entirely out of her body.
The “almost” is crucial in both cases. In Her, our awareness of Johansson’s ubiquitous face and body hovers in back of the OS’s voice. And Johansson does occasionally speak in Under the Skin, though not quite in her own voice, affecting a passable British accent. We excuse this because she’s an alien. Glazer’s film opens with a sequence that at first seems like a shot of planets or spaceships aligning and gives way to the artificial construction of a human eye. This is accompanied by audio of the alien practicing human speech (apparently a recording of Johansson’s sessions with a dialogue coach). Scarlett becomes an alien becoming a human, or rather becoming a woman. As the film proceeds, we hear the alien speaking in the familiar patois of feminine seduction: she titters, she recites pickup lines, she compliments. When she can’t think of something nice to say about a man’s face, she tells him he has nice hands.