Sauron sweeps to victory in Middle-Earth

So I wrote this silly thing and figured I might as well put it up here.

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Our top story today is the shocking upset in this year’s elections as Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, sweeps towards a truly unexpected victory across much of Middle-Earth. The controversial policies of the coalition government, including the use of invasive surveillance programs such as PALANTIR, the privatisation of the Houses of Healing, and the pillaging of the villages of the common folk, seem to have done less harm than expected to the fortunes of Mordor’s candidates.

Not since the First Age and the re-election of Melkor, called Morgorth, the Great Enemy, has an incumbent party seen such a resounding increase in elected seats. The Home Secretary, Shelob the Spider, was overheard clicking her mandibles with glee, while the Witch-King of Angmar promised that under his continued stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Middle-Earth’s economic recovery would be assured.

When asked for for comment, the Dark Lord Sauron, having yet to re-attain physical form and thus remaining, for the moment, a giant fiery eyeball, repeated his highly successful campaign catchphrase: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, / Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” The Dark Lord closed his remarks by whispering the words “I SEE YOU” into the very souls of men, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Sauron’s coalition partner Saruman has, however, been dealt a crushing blow. Formerly of the White Council, it was hoped after the last election that the wisdom of Saruman would mollify the extreme rapacious tendencies of the forces of evil. However, the controversies surrounding university tuition fees and the burning of the Westfold have alienated his traditional base in the Gap of Rohan, and polling data suggests his fighting Uruk-Hai have apparently left him behind, instead opting to vote directly for his evil master, Sauron.

More shocking was the failure of the Free Men of Middle-Eath to make any significant headway, and indeed losing their last grasp on the north, as the Men of Dale were routed in the vote by the Dwarven Nationalists. Last year’s referendum on Dwarven Independence, far from drawing a line under the question of the Dwarven Nationalism, seems to have galvanised support for Dáin Ironfoot, who has long claimed that, with the riches of Erebor now regained from Smaug, the Dwarves are capable of sustaining their own economy without direct support from the south.

Questions will no doubt be asked around the leadership of Faramir, son of Denethor, who has been unable to escape accusations of being a ‘wizard’s pupil’. Despite talk of being tainted by the power of the One Ring, there will no doubt be those who wonder if Boromir, Faramir’s older brother, would have been more suited to leadership of the party in this election. Meanwhile, Théoden King, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was overheard by one insider muttering “Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They are gone, like rain on the mountainside.”

Elsewhere, the Elves have held on to their previous three seats in Lothlórien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. While the Ents did manage to maintain their presence in Fangorn Forest, their leader Treebeard has released a statement saying that “No one cares for the woods anymore.”

The creature Gollum has also managed to hold at least one seat in parliament. During the election, he was often to be found in his cave, surrounded by kippers, hissing the words “preciousss” and “nasty, tricksy hobbitsesss”. Despite being rumoured to have once been a hobbit-like creature himself, Gollum’s anti-hobbit stance has been central to his campaign, and has gained some traction in former Arnor townships such as Bree, which has seen an influx of migrant hobbits in recent years.

Finally, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Gandalf the Grey, also called Mithrandir and Stormcrow, has been seen on the road from Minas Tirith, gnawing on the brim of his pointed wizard hat. More on this story as it develops.

Being and Specialness: ‘The Zero Theorem’ and ‘The LEGO Movie’

Contains major spoilers for The Zero Theorem and The LEGO Movie.

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Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. It just took a little longer than I expected. I actually did write the main body of this post a while ago (hence the lazy Eurovision crack in the next paragraph), but it was a time when the film had already left UK cinemas, and very few people elsewhere had gotten the chance to see it yet. Anyway, it is now out on VOD in America, with a limited run in cinemas coming later this month, so now seems as good a time as any.

So, the importance of searching for one’s own meaning or purpose in life, in the face of an incomprehensible or actively hostile world, has pretty much always been a popular theme in film narratives. This year alone, Under the Skin, Inside Llewyn DavisThe Double, The Zero Theorem, Lucy and, yes, The LEGO Movie have all directly addressed this central existential concern. And they all draw upon the idea that it is up to the individual to negotiate their own meaning, because the world doesn’t have meaning beyond that which we impose – it is an absurdity. After all, we live in a universe that produced the Eurovision Song Contest.[1]

Incongruous as it may seem, The LEGO Movie and The Zero Theorem in particular share a specific blending of existentialist ideas with narratives that both evoke and parody mystical experiences.[2] Pat Rushin, screenwriter of Zero Theorem and a professor at the University of Central Florida, was inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes, which he suggests “asks the major questions. What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?” All of which clearly chime with modern existential concerns, even while drawing from a Biblical source.

It’s explicitly stated in The Zero Theorem that the burned-out chapel in which Qohen (Christoph Waltz, of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained fame) lives was previously inhabited by Gnostic monks who had taken a vow of silence and, in a moment of ash-black comedy, he remarks that this vow led to their deaths in the fire. For sacrificing communication in the name of attaining true knowledge, the monks were punished (or, if you are of a particular frame of mind, rewarded) with death.

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Qohen himself has suffered a severe existential crisis in his past. Having realised that he is ‘not special’, he awaits a phone call that will give him a purpose in life, a reason to be.[3] Because of his absolute belief in this phone call, in his own personal salvation, the sinister Management (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity), declares Qohen to be the most religious man there is. This is why Management chose him for the task of unravelling the Zero Theorem, which will prove that eventually the universe will collapse in on itself, and therefore the fundamental pointlessness of all things. Which, according to Management, will be a valuable sales tool.

By curious coincidence, however, the method by which Qohen goes about attempting to solve the Zero Theorem is visualised by nothing other than the assemblage of blocks, which either form patterns or collapse into chaos depending on how successful Qohen is in his pursuit of the Theorem. This leads us smoothly into The LEGO Movie, of course.

In contrast to Qohen, LEGO everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt, rising star of Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Jurassic World) is quite content at not being special at all. His single desire is to fit in with those around him.[4] The revelation that he’s supposed to be the ‘The Special’ who will save the world from the plans of evil Lord Business (who manages to be even more obviously sinister than Management) is profoundly uncomfortable to him, in a way that deliberately echoes the idea of the refusal of the call to adventure as defined in Joseph Campbell’s conception of the monomyth.[5]

Another prominent Campbellian theme is the idea of ‘death and return’, where the protagonist suffers a physical or metaphorical death and enters an ‘Other World’, with the goal of bringing back some divine knowledge or ‘boon’. It is, clearly, a mystical experience, and it makes an obvious appearance in The LEGO Movie when Emmet’s sacrifices his own life save the Master Builders from Lord Business. After Emmet ‘dies’, he pierces the veil of his reality, he gains true knowledge, and sees Finn (Jadon Sand) and his father (Will Ferrell, of the Anchorman films, not to mention the underrated Stranger than Fiction) as they really are, even if he doesn’t fully understand them. He is, after all, a tiny little LEGO man.

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The story of the film so far is, therefore, simply an extension of Finn’s imagination.[6] This creates a curious inversion of the relationship between the human and the divine. Finn’s father is, after all, credited as ‘The Man Upstairs’, which is also how the inhabitants of the LEGO world refer to him. He is their demiurge, the creator of their world, and Finn is their messiah. Yet this is all ironised by the fact that Finn and his father are clearly just ordinary people, placed into the role of gods by their relationship with the LEGO world.

And now, to segue equally smoothly back to The Zero Theorem, the relationship between Finn and his father strikingly mirrors that that of Management and his son, Bob (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom) in Gilliam’s film. Initially, Bob seems as misanthropic and selfish as everyone else in Qohen’s world, insisting on calling everyone else around him ‘Bob’ because he’s not even interested in so much as remembering another person’s name. Eventually, however, Bob is revealed as Qohen’s most loyal or, at least, most honest friend – the rest turning out to be pawns of Management. Of course, Management is pointedly not God, and Bob himself would make for a rather poor messiah. The relationship echoes the idea of a Holy Father and a Son of God, but Management and Bob are, in truth, nothing more than pale shadows of religious figures they resemble.

When Bob sacrifices his health, and potentially his life, to help Qohen, it comes across as tragically futile. And when, in their final confrontation, Qohen once again demands his phone call from Management, demands to be given his sense of purpose, the latter calmly (even smugly) admits that Qohen must have mistaken him for a higher power. Indeed, there is no space for a higher power in the world of The Zero Theorem. That’s largely the point.

The film climaxes with Qohen apparently forfeiting his being in the real world in exchange for the experience of a virtual reality where he is able to act as his own personal god, playing with the sun as like it was a beach ball. He does, in the end, manage to actualise himself, his apotheosis a metaphor for an escape from the whims of an absurd and uncaring system. But like the Gnostic monks who inhabited the chapel before him, it would seem that this escape comes at the cost of his material, physical existence, if not his life.[7]

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But, in The LEGO Movie, something much more mysterious happens. Just as it seems Lord Business and The Man Upstairs are about to achieve their final victory, gluing everything in place so nothing will ever change ever again, Emmet intervenes in Finn’s ‘Real World’. He sees his own world as the toy collection it truly is, an entirely absurd thing that has no real significance – yet he never loses the sense that it’s important to save his friends. He draws Finn’s attention back to Emmet himself, back to the ‘Piece of Resistance’ which will stop Lord Business’s plan in the LEGO world, back to the story he has created. And it is through this story, through realising that his own son has cast him in the role of the villainous Lord Business, not in an act of cruelty or malice, but out of genuine confusion and frustration and love, The Man Upstairs finally attempts to connect with Finn.

As much as the film happily cribs from the Campbell playbook, the generic-ness of the main plot ultimately becomes a punchline when it is revealed that Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), the Master Builder who serves as Emmet’s mentor, just made up the prophecy of ‘The Special’ as a way to encourage people to fight against Lord Business.[8] In so doing, the film undercuts its own the narrative logic, establishing an equivalency not only between its characters, but between the two levels of reality.

Here, the created is allowed to change the creator. The material has power over the divine. This is The LEGO Movie, after all. Of course it’s a gleeful celebration of materialism, even as it deconstructs and parodies the consumerist/corporatist arrangement (the former embodied by Emmett and the latter by Lord Business). The film happily rejoices in the pop-culture spectacle of having Batman hang out with the crew of the Millennium Falcon, or Gandalf and Dumbledore standing side-by-side. Were this film to ask its audience (especially children) to put aside the simple pleasure provided by throwing together material cultural artefacts, to become as ascetic as the Gnostic monks, it would be hypocritical in the extreme.[9]

Instead, it’s telling us something else. That storytelling is, fundamentally, an existential act. It is the attempt to give meaning and shape to experience, to life itself. The story Finn constructs in The LEGO Movie is an attempt to give meaning to the rules his father has created – and, in doing so, break through them. Finn takes his father’s neat and ordered collection, pulls it apart, and reshapes its constituent pieces together into something new. And, in a moment of pure alchemical magic, this act of storytelling reshapes his own life.

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Next Time: I don’t know, maybe the new Doctor Who? Yeah, probably the new Doctor Who.

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[1] This was timely when I wrote it, okay?

[2] Particularly, they seem to resemble or reference the Gnostic idea that the material world is a lesser realm created by an evil demiurge, or creative force, and that we should strive to escape it and reunite with the true spiritual world. Etymologically the term Gnosticism comes from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, specifically knowledge which descends from experience – in this case a direct mystical experience of the divine.

[3] There is clearly some kind of relationship, intended or not, between The Zero Theorem and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), in which Max Cohen is also trying to solve a seemingly impossible equation of cosmic significance, and regularly receives phone calls which address him by name, just as Qohen imagines his phone call doing. After a particularly bad hallucinatory episode, Cohen shaves off all his hair, which Qohen’s unusual appearance clearly echoes.

[4] Ironically, Emmet’s lack of any distinguishing feature or gimmick, his attempt to sublimate his identity completely into the consumerist community around him, is why his fellow construction workers find him vaguely uncomfortable to be around – he’s the guy who invites himself along to things that you don’t have the heart to say ‘no’ to.

[5] For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave to one side critiques of Campbell’s observations, and instead just note that his concept of the monomyth, or ‘Hero’s Journey’, has without a doubt been extremely influential in the construction of Hollywood narratives, the most famous example usually given being Star Wars.

[6] Again, there a curious resemblances to Gnosticism. There, the creative demiurge is often conceived of as an ‘evil archon’ (no, not a Dark Archon, Starcraft players), a negative aspect of the totality of the divine, who denies the human spirit its freedom and connection to the spiritual world. In this cosmic schema, the role of Jesus is an emanation of the divine, an “aeon” or eternal spirit, who provides the way for humanity to escape the material and be reunited with its divine origins.

[7] Qohen’s fate is, indeed, rather similar to that of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean) in Brazil – the proper version of Brazil, that is – where Lowry is left only with his fantasy of a life with Jill (Kim Greist, Manhunter) after she has been killed and he has been tortured into insanity.

[8] Vitruvius, meanwhile, is clearly named after a Roman architect, engineer and writer from the 1st Century BC. He authored De Architectura, the earliest surviving work on, well, architecture, surprisingly. It’s probably also worth noting that architect comes from the Greek arkhitekton – which happens to mean ‘Master Builder’. Phil Lord and Chris Miller knew exactly what they were up to when they were writing this script.

[9] So yeah, The LEGO Movie is basically Postmodernism: The Film. But for kids, who have always done this sort of thing earnestly, and without thinking. This is, in fact, one of the most interesting things the film points out, that the remixing of cultural references and symbols isn’t necessarily an affectation, but something that is actually fairly elemental to our experience of narrative.

The Modern Pygmalion: ‘Her’ and ‘Under the Skin’

Contains spoilers for Her and Under the Skin. Also for My Fair Lady, Metropolis and more than two-thousand-year-old myths.

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The basic idea for this post has been simmering in my mind since I went to see Her back in February. In that film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Despite the occasional sense of over-exertion in Johansson’s performance, which had the additional challenge of being audio-only in a live action film, I was impressed and moved by the film, and the story got me thinking about the depiction of artificial – in a very specific sense, man-made – women in cinematic narratives.

Strikingly, Johansson has starred in two movies this year, released in the UK in as many months, where she plays some form of artificial or essentially fabricated woman. The artificial intelligence in Her, who names herself Samantha, is brought into existence to be the computer operating system (and, essentially, personal assistant) for Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Her personality is calibrated to his, meaning that even though he did not design the program which creates her himself, he has a substantial personal role in the formation of her identity.

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By contrast, in Jonathan Glazer’s psychosexual horror film Under the Skin, Johansson stars as an alien seductress with a vague or even incomprehensible origin who drives around Glasgow and the surrounding countryside in a white van picking up men and attempting to lure them back to an abandoned house to be consumed in some eldritch process for a purpose which the film never quite makes explicitly clear. Meanwhile, a mysterious ‘handler’ on a motorbike keeps track of her and tidies up the loose ends of those who she targets.[1] Despite being broadly defined as science fiction, these are vastly different films in terms of style and tone. Yet they share thematic resonances which have, in fact, been recurring throughout the history of cinema, and since long before.

Narratives concerning artificial human beings seem to broadly fall into two subcategories. There are those which treat the relationship between creator and created as being primarily parental in nature, and are thus almost inevitably are about the dynamic between father and son. These I think of as the Prometheus version.[2] And then there are those which are usually motivated by male attitudes towards women, in which the artificial human character is therefore almost always female. This could be described as the Pygmalion version, and it is this latter construction with which Her and Under the Skin appear to be in conversation.[3]

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The oldest surviving iteration of the story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he describes how a sculptor from Cyprus, called Pygmalion, creates a beautiful statue that he names Galatea, and with which of course he then falls in love with. He prays to Venus for a wife in the likeness of the statue, and so Venus brings his creation to life, and they marry and have a child and, in so far as classical mythology goes, live happily ever after.[4] Of course, it’s significant that Pygmalion had previously sworn off women after seeing the daughters of Propoetus forced to prostitute themselves after they denied Venus was a goddess, which is never the smartest move in a Greek myth. Galatea is specifically a male ideal of purified femininity that contrasts against the example of fallen or soiled women. All of which, to put it in highly technical and academic terms, is kind of messed up.

Unsurprisingly, then, iterations of the Pygmalion myth in cinema often prove problematic. In Fritz Lang’s iconic science-fiction epic Metropolis (1927), the instigator of an almost apocalyptic rebellion which nearly destroys the eponymous city is a robot made to impersonate Maria (Brigitte Helm), the spiritual leader of Metropolis’s workers. While her malevolence has overlap with the Frankenstein story, in contrast to Mary Shelley’s novel and its many film adaptations, the false Maria never turns against her creator, the mad scientist Rotwang  (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), remaining loyal to him alone.

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More to the point, she was originally supposed to resemble Hel, the woman Rotwang loved even after her death (he has – wouldn’t you know it – a statue of her in his home).  Here Rotwang’s obsessions and his bitterness, and the robot’s conflation of seduction and destructiveness, reveals the problematic truth underlying the Pygmalion myth. But, despite this confrontation with the darker aspects of the myth, it still treats the robot as nothing more than a symbol, far from being a person in her own right.

In the classic musical My Fair Lady (1964), based on the play Pygmalion (1912) by George Bernard Shaw, phonetics and language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) trains up simple cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to pass in polite London society for a bet. Late in the film, after she has rejected him for not caring one wit about what happens to her once he’s won his bet, Higgins describes the now ‘ladylike’ Eliza as “this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden”. George Bernard Shaw’s original play is without a doubt on Eliza’s side here, and it is, in fact, a profoundly feminist story.

However, the musical uses the same ending as the 1938 film adaptation of the play, in which Eliza and Higgins reconcile, with her repeating the earlier line of “I washed my face and hands”. For Shaw this was untenable: “When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”

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Of course, Her has been criticised for adhering to exactly the kinds of idealisations which frequently occur in Pygmalion narratives, notably by Newsnight presented Emily Maitlis who, after an awkward interview with director Spike Jonze, described the film as a “sad male fetish fantasy”. And Maitlis is correct to highlight these themes (and that Jonze could really have handled the situation better), but her belief that the film is about technology rather than relationships means she appears to have missed that the story is a critique of exactly that kind of fantasy, that myth. Indeed, the power of Her comes through its commitment to its heroine successfully transcending her original programming and purpose and coming truly alive. And, as Shaw would have it, she does not relapse. She becomes something new. And she undergoes a metamorphosis far more powerful than that of her distant progenitor, Galatea.

Under the Skin is, by any measure, a weird and difficult film. It begins with a somewhat obtuse sequence of unidentifiable technology and the sound of Johansson’s character learning to make human speech, which resonates rather remarkably with both My Fair Lady and Her. Unusually, the director, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) decided to make the sections where Johansson is prowling around Scotland more realistic by actually having her approaching complete strangers on the road, as well as using actors.[5] The actual ‘horror’ scenes, meanwhile, are strange and almost abstract, this only makes what is happening feel more threatening and sinister.

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The effect is not just to have the uncanny invade the familiar world, but to make the familiar world itself feel uncanny, transforming an invasion into an occupation. Johansson’s minimalist performance (a dramatic contrast to the exaggerated earnestness of Samantha) is at the centre of this hollowed-out world, her effected impression of an English accent proving just alien enough to stand out in western Scotland, with the sparseness of the film’s dialogue adding to the overwhelming sense of bleakness and isolation. When one character spends too much time talking later in the story, it comes across as an unnerving warning sign.

After an encounter with a lonely man suffering from a form of neurofibromatosis, Johansson’s character begins to question herself and her purpose. Perhaps realising that she is as utterly alone as he is, she attempts to help the man escape his fate, and in doing so begins to question her own desires and sense of purpose. Abandoning her macabre duties, she wanders through western Scotland, struggling to connect with the people around her. But despite her attempts, she physically cannot share in human experiences, from the simple pleasure of having a chocolate cake at a restaurant to experiencing a real sexual relationship, rather than just the twisted mirror of one.[6]

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Ultimately, her artificial, alien biology, and the singular, dark purpose given to her by her creators, do not permit her to fulfil her desire to connect with humanity. Of course, Under the Skin is a horror story, and there is no space in horror for a monster which self-actualizes and transcends its purpose, and so in a sense it is the nature of the narrative itself forbidding the statue from coming to life. Instead, by relinquishing what pre-determined power and identity she has as a predator, she is forced into becoming the other central figure in horror fiction: that of the victim.

However, her fate does not arrive through her sinister handler, but instead, more mundanely and more horrifically, at the hands of a park ranger who comes across her sleeping in a hiker’s shelter, and attempts to rape her. In the following struggle, he inadvertently rips open her human guise as if it were plastic wrapping, and as her true self stands revealed, he murders her by burning her alive. Like the false Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, she is both the creation of some unfathomably advanced science and also an uncanny figure whose fabricated femininity condemns her to suffer a modern imitation of mediaeval witch-burning. But where the robot’s destruction was primarily a moment of catharsis, as the agent of the city’s near-destruction is herself destroyed by those she manipulated, the death of the alien creature in Under the Skin is clearly meant to be something stranger, more complex, and more tragic.

 

Next Time: Existentialism in  Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem and The LEGO Movie! Yes, really.

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[1] In the Michael Faber novel on which the film is based, the alien corporation the main character works for sells human flesh as a delicacy, which makes as much sense as anything else based on what we’re given in the movie.

[2] To keep thing simple, it’s more the stories inspired by the Prometheus myth, rather than Prometheus’s creation of mankind itself, which we’re talking about here. Obviously, the key work here is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which has influenced so much of, and arguably invented, science fiction (of course, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein also gives us a clear moment of confluence between the two myths). For more recent examples, just look at the back-story of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the rather tellingly named character of Sonny from the 2004 ‘adaptation’ of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

[3] A rather illustrative exception to this informal division I’m outlining is the origin story of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. In the first version of the character’s history, she was moulded out of clay by her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and brought to life by the power of the Aphrodite. And then some other stuff happens and she goes off to fight Nazis, as you do. Anyway, the focus on the maternal relationship (and the fact the creative agents are entirely female) seems rather atypical, and it’s no coincidence that the creator of the character, William Moulton Marston, was an avowed feminist. The use of classical mythology makes it an even more evidently a deliberate counterpoint to the primarily male-driven myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion.

[4] The city of Paphos is, according to Ovid, named after their son. So what we have here appears to be an origin myth based in the cult of Venus/Aphrodite. Again, clearly not a coincidence that William Moulton Marston uses Aphrodite as the creative force to bring Wonder Woman to life.

[5] This does give rise to what is now one of my favourite film production stories, which is that while Scarlett Johansson was in the front of the white van in a wig and fake fur coat attempting to chat up random Scottish men, Glazer and the production crew were in the back, waiting to jump out with release forms so they could use the secretly recorded footage in the movie.

[6] The choice of chocolate cake is almost certainly not an accident. It is, according to pretty much every romantic comedy ever made, the ultimate in confectionery indulgence for women, and is generally encoded as a female object in film. It is, therefore, significant in semiotic terms that Johansson’s character either can’t stand the taste, or possibly isn’t even capable of digesting it. Her dislike and/or incompatibility doesn’t match the audience’s implied expectations, and suggests to us that her attempt to transform herself into a ‘real’ woman is doomed to failure.