Carnal Tension, Superficial Logic: The Feminine Body and Its Surface in LUCY and UNDER THE SKIN

Curator's Note

A couple of panels at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference will consider Scarlett Johansson’s “bodily turn” across Her (Spike Jonze, 2013), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013), and Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014). It’s been a remarkable episode in the career of an actress who has frequently been perceived as something of a blank canvas for projections of the popular (male) imaginary (see, for example, this infamous New Yorker profile by Anthony Lane). A logic of the surface, traceable across these films, opens up interesting questions concerning representations of the feminine body on-screen. 

Until her nude scenes in Under the Skin, her “star” body had been avidly scrutinized (tabloids routinely debated her alleged breast augmentation and subsequent reduction). Her popular sexual appeal rested upon a supposed “blankness” of exterior affect. Lane’s profile is a classic example of how easily fantasies—carnal or otherwise—can be projected onto such a superficially constructed sexual persona. 

My accompanying video, comprising shots and sequences from Under the Skin and Lucy (Her is excluded since Johansson doesn’t actually possess a body in it) highlights what I’ve called a logic of the (bodily) surface. In Lucy, for example, her “evolution” begins by way of a superficial penetration. As the drugs kick her brain into high gear, internal changes register on the surface of her body: her eyes flash blue, strange amorphous structures extend from her skin, and so on. In the climax, Lucy’s bodily surface morphs into an organic super-computer (or something…) which disintegrates, dispersing “Lucy” completely.

Under the Skin’s play with surfaces is a bit more complex. Most obviously, there’s the human surface worn by Johansson’s alien. It isn’t quite skin; there is a curious duality evident between the alien underside and the human exterior of this surface (noticeable when she/it peels it off). Repeatedly, the film pushes surface matters to the fore: a tear rolling down a victim’s cheek, the alien ingesting and regurgitating human food, discovering the human surface’s erogenous zones…but most interestingly, there is throughout the film a flickering effect between the visible surface of Johansson’s actual body and popular hype which had constructed its own version of that body. 

How might thinking about the body’s surface alter how film theory considers representations of the (feminine) body on-screen? Specifically, how can theorizing surface matters reconfigure discourses of screen carnality? Should we (re-)think corporeality by way of superficiality? 


Hey Swagato. Exciting to read your take on these films and Johansson, and to know that there are people coming together to talk about them. I really like the way you draw attention to the work Lane's profile does in capturing a particular mode of seeing Scarlett Johansson. This is definitely a reference I had in mind when thinking about "narrativising abstraction" in my post. These films know whose body they are working with and--especially in Under the Skin--put the process into play. Your question about corporeality and superficiality is really provocative: what do you think? Is there an emergent representational mode of body/skin/screen happening here?

Hi Zara, Thanks for your comments. There are other write-ups of Johansson disturbingly akin to Lane's in tone and approach (they all seem to emphasize the peculiar blankness of Johansson's affect), and yes, I do think that's a key point when considering these recent films, since her body and its performance across these films both departs from and reacts against that "blankness." My thinking about corporeality and superficiality emerges out of some recent concerns: with architectural projection mapping on the one hand, and with contemporary French "cinéma du corps" on the other. I actually do think that the surface of media is in need of serious thinking--Giuliana Bruno's recent book, "Surface," begins exactly this project. Interestingly, your conflation ("body/screen/skin") is something I'm working on in a separate project that has to do with architectural projection mapping, where the surface façade of architectural structures is treated as a fabric of sorts. There seems to be a slippage between fabric/screen/skin/surface that I'm not sure our current vocabulary can grasp. I think animation studies might also have something to say (think of motion capture systems that track sensors attached to the surface of the actor's body, for example).

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