There is a point in Lucy, the bizarre new sci-fi flick from French filmmaker Luc Besson, when Scarlett Johansson disappears. Literally. She vanishes into thin air. The plot twist has something to do with a drug that has leaked into her system and causes her to unlock more and more of her brain power, but her physical disintegration is really just a logical endpoint of her recent career path. Surely and systematically, Johansson has been disappearing all year.
This might seem counterintuitive, considering that Johansson has appeared in four films in 2014 alone: Under the Skin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, and now Lucy. Add to that Her, which had a limited run in late December but did not see wide release until January, and Johansson has been a nearly continuous presence at both the multiplex and the art house this year.
But in most of these roles, part of her is missing. In Her, it was her body. Johansson gives an entirely vocal performance as Samantha, the Operating System that the film’s protagonist purchases and then falls in love with. In Under the Skin and Lucy, her body is very much present, but her personality has gone missing. For different reasons, both characters are emotionally inert, and the indelible image of each film is Johansson’s blank stare. Like most great actors, she certainly has the skill to convey what is inside her head with just a look, but in these films, her mind and her soul remain intentionally, and frustratingly, hidden.
So what to make of this gradual vanishing act? Is Johansson simply challenging herself with roles that compartmentalize her talents? Possibly. But there is also a strongly feminist streak running through each of these films. Considering her on-the-record statements about Hollywood’s objectification of women, we might be meant to read her recent work as a unique and powerful statement about an industry and society that make its women disappear.
Johansson may not consider herself a feminist (according to an interview in support of The Other Boleyn Girl), but she has been pointing out Hollywood’s misogyny for years. In 2008, she noted publicly that the movie business treats its aging stars differently depending on their gender. When doing press for The Avengers, she made a habit of calling out interviewers who asked her sexist questions. Earlier this year, she informed Glamour of her problems with her press-anointed nickname, ScarJo: “It sounds tacky. It’s lazy and flippant... And there’s something kind of violent about it. There’s something insulting about it.” That casual analysis of Hollywood nicknames didn’t garner much attention, but she had a point. We don’t give such nicknames to our male stars. There is J-Lo, J-Law, and ScarJo, but there is no “C-Tat” (Channing Tatum) or “WILF” (Will Ferrell). By astutely identifying these nicknames as “violent,” Johansson points out their real purpose: to diminish the women they are assigned to.
This is exactly what happens to most of Johansson’s recent characters: they get compartmentalized. In each of the films listed above, she plays a woman who society has assigned a singular goal of serving men. Their journey is to transcend that purpose, and the process is often painful.