For some reason, despite my love for soundtracks, the awesomeness of Under The Skin swept me away and I forgot about the fantastic score. Natalie reminded me of it in a previous Monday @ The Music post, and since then I haven’t been able to stop listening. To thank Nat, I asked if she was willing to contribute to my little ‘feature’ here, and she not only accepted but wrote an extremely thoughtful post that I am extremely grateful for. So enough talk, lets see what Nat has to say about this incredible soundtrack from one of last year’s best films….
What exactly is it that makes a film soundtrack ‘great’? It’s a question I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to since Jordan of epilepticmoondancer invited me to be a part of this excellent regular feature. Monday @ The Music has already explored many possible answers. There’s the soundtrack’s ability to provoke an emotional response, to create atmosphere and to transport us back to the cinematic moment. Essentially, the score must work both inside the film and independently from it.
Mica Levi’s strange and eerie score for Jonathan Glazer’s surreal science fiction, Under The Skin, is one that ticks all of these boxes. It’s my favourite score from 2014 (closely followed by Alexandre Desplat’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) and one that I have returned to many times in the last twelve months.
Levi wrote the score electronically using a combination of real instruments and technology. This choice reflects Glazer’s own fundamental approach to the film: to fuse the real and the surreal. Visually, Under The Skin switches between CCTV style reality (take Glasgow’s streets as seen from above) and an alternate, dreamlike world in which an alien – known simply as The Female (Scarlett Johansson) – lures unwitting men into a black, liquid death.
Levi spoke about the film’s wider sound design in Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2014) describing the sound and music as “cohesive and homogenous”. We need look no further than the film’s opening sequence for an example of this. Unnatural strings meet jarring phonetic sounds. Those sounds – actually Johansson performing vocal exercises – put us in mind of language formation. The visuals continue this alien birth thread – a pinprick of blue light morphing into bigger circles – reminiscent of planets and the evolution of a human eye. The track, aptly named Creation stops abruptly. We are in a world of the unknown.
The score’s most memorable theme is pared back, unnerving and wholly unfamiliar. A slow, repetitive beat resembles footsteps. The left foot is a booming low note, the right more akin to heavy breathing through a piece of old aeronautical equipment: a purposeful exhale through Darth Vader’s mask. High strings appear intermittently, conjuring mystery and evoking The Female’s peculiar art of seduction. Later, rapidly fluctuating strings provide the aural equivalent of a cold shudder. As the victims walk ardently to their doom, the almost mechanical strings provide a sinister undercurrent of impending death. It’s a theme Levi frequently returns to as The Female entices more victims into the trap.
Levi says of the theme, “She [The Female] uses that theme – it’s her tool. At the beginning, it’s like fake – it’s her perfume, it’s the way she reels these guys in with a tune. Then it deteriorates, it becomes sadder. We called it the ‘capture’ melody. Then there’s this major triad, a warm chord, and that’s her ‘human’ or ‘love’ feeling. And there’s this darker minor triad of trilled strings that recess throughout”.
Indeed, when The Female lures a disfigured man into her trap there are subtle shifts in the theme. The rapid, mechanical strings are absent while the higher notes are stretched out, more mysterious and with a nod to classic cinema. Perhaps The Female is beginning to connect with a humanity she discovers within her as she sets the man free. It’s an action that sets about her own destruction and, from here, the score becomes sadder, more fraught and less structured by rhythmic beats.
In the following scenes a chase sequence is accompanied by what resembles rapid gunfire (see 1.30 in the track Mirror To Vortex) while The Female’s cautious attempts at love making with a kind stranger are accompanied by low strings and synthetic notes that awaken our own notion of her nativity, fragility and relative newness (in tracks Bedroom and Love). The track, Love, ends melancholically. A darkness enters it, in the form of long, lower notes.
Whispering trees rustling in high winds form the beginning of the next track, Bothy, completing a sense of The Female’s loneliness. Having left behind her ‘known’ world, a failure to fully comprehend a human one results in The Female’s desire to flee. As she takes off into the woodland and comes to rest at a walker’s retreat, Glazer embraces some beautiful visual techniques: The Female’s body appears to fade in and out of the blowing trees in a dreamy, escapist moment that she is suddenly torn from.
The film ends with both real and surreal horrors. For all The Female’s vulnerability at the hands of a male attacker, it’s Levi’s ‘capture’ or ‘void’ theme that reminds us of The Female’s ‘otherness’. Here – as we finally glimpse what is ‘under the skin’ – the theme takes on its most gentle form. In the cinematic moment, the emphasis on strings combined with softened (and at some points absent) beats complements this bizarre event, provoking our curiosity still further. The film’s final moments are ones of loneliness, intensified by the cold and snowy, isolated, forest location. In fusing the score’s main themes, suggesting an emotional development on the part of The Female, this penultimate track inspires audience contemplation about the film which defies simple explanation.
With Under The Skin, Levi creates a sound unlike any other and an atmosphere that lives beyond Glazer’s strange and unearthly film. The score’s final track, Alien Loop, returns us to that very sense of ‘otherness’ with which it began.
Thanks again Nat for the insightful post! Much appreciated! 🙂
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