United Kingdom Mica Levi – Under the Skin (screening of 2013 film with live performance of soundtrack): Sound Intermedia; London Sinfonietta / Jonathan Berman (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.4.2017. (CC)
It was a good decision to move the post-concert discussion with Mica Levi and Jonathan Glazer to before the screening, and from The Clore Ballroom to the stage of the Festival Hall. How many audience members, I wonder, would have stayed on after this poignant, thought-provoking film? Both speakers were attired in what I assume is trendy dress-down casual; Levi’s comments were modest and almost mumbled at times. It was clear throughout that she’d really rather let the music do the talking.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber of the same name, Jonathan Glazer’s film intrigues: this is sci-fi like no other. It acts as a huge question mark to our lives: if we were an outsider, how would we learn to love? Or to feel? Would we search for connection with another through copulation? Once arrived on Earth after an hypnotic sequence of images, the central, nameless character, impeccably played by Scarlett Johansson, navigates her way into the human condition by a series of sexual conquests. As the men follow her to consummate the connection, they pass through a doorway, the other side of which is a mysterious space. They follow their seductress, descending into blackness while she remains on an unseen path, even as each divests themselves of their clothing. The film asks many more questions than it finds answers for, and the enigmatic nature of Levi’s score echoes this central trait. As she puts it, “we were going for sexy and unhuman.” As a result, the resultant soundscape was duty bound to lack anything comfortable. Another quote from Levi: “it’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot”.
The character thus arrives almost as a female Parsifal character. Does she know any emotions? Fear, for example? Certainly not fear in the interactions with the first few men she ensnares, that’s for sure. She demonstrates an unshakeable control over other people; her belief that their will is to be bent her way seems to brook no doubt. Inevitably perhaps on a planet that hides its basic emotion of love so well, the girl eventually finds a connection with someone but the ability to locate that connection is far from immediate. And that’s hardly the end of the journey; the final “unveiling” of her essence is remarkable.
Initially, we see a series of shapes to Mica Levi’s eerie score. Scored for strings with the addition of flute/piccolo and two synthesisers (with superb sound preparation by Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Sheppard), Levi’s score is both otherworldly – the word has been used multiple times to describe this score – and relentless. The intensity of the buzzing string opening sets the scene for this raw experience. As Levi says, “the idea was to … react in real time to what she [Scarlett Johansson’s character] was experiencing, not to pre-empt or reflect on things that had already happened.” This sense of being in the moment is crucial to the score’s success. One gesture, a keening “cell” of three notes, comes back time and time again, a glassy, ascending high string motif that contains within it all the contained horror of the narrative. There is one moment where the sound of an ambulance on-screen almost nestles into the surrounding soundtrack, a remarkable moment of melding. But then, the music is essential to the experience of Under the Skin. It acts almost as the “blood” of the film, its life force.
Levi’s palette is deliberately limited, as is her stock of musical material. Yet it fits perfectly as well as creating the atmosphere of tension that propels the film ever onwards. The performance by the London Sinfonietta was truly remarkable. Having the sound so immediate added an extra layer to the experience, a presence that was simply compelling. Talking about her score, Levi has said that “it’s hard for me to be objective, but I’m very proud of it”. And so she should be.