Under the Skin, In the Flesh

Under the Skin

One of the most powerful aspects of Jonathan Glazer’s gorgeous and daring “Under the Skin” is its score from British singer-songwriter and producer Mica Levi: a haunting mix of strings, percussion and flute that’s sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike and always original. It keeps you on edge from the very beginning, and it beautifully accompanies the transformation that Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes.

Last night at the newly reopened Regent Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, I had the great pleasure of rewatching the film with Levi conducting a 25-piece orchestra which performed the score before a sold-out audience. The century-old theater, which was home to grindhouse fare and porn in the 1970s, has been restored to its former glory, and it provided an intimate and appropriately dramatic setting for such a bold film.

In case you haven’t seen “Under the Skin” — and you really should, since it’s one of 2014’s best — Johansson stars as a sexy, otherworldly being who prowls the streets of Scotland in a minivan seeking lonely, single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes. It’s challenging and intentionally ambiguous but also just exquisite in its imagery, visual effects and sound design.

Watching it again with Levi at the helm, I noticed several different elements I didn’t catch completely upon initial viewing. When I first saw the movie, it blew me away from both a technical and a narrative perspective. And Johansson’s performance truly wowed me: It’s probably the best work of her long and eclectic career because it requires her to be both seductive and elusive, often within the blink of an eye.

This time, there was a heightened buzz in the room with such gifted musicians performing this awesome and avant-garde score right in front of us. The staccato of the violas sizzled even more, and the steady drum that’s the heartbeat of Johansson’s hunt provided an even more unbearable feeling of suspense. But I also felt more aware of her arc — possible spoilers ahead — as she goes from cold and driven predator to uncertain and emotional prey. Glazer establishes subtle parallels: the way she walks backward as she lures various men into her lair, and then later follows a man who’s walking backward as he leads her down a narrow, scary staircase. His camera tracks men walking down the street, lingering as it sizes them up, but regards the women who walk by with indifference.

I also noticed the first contacts with humanity that touched her even earlier — the blood on her hand from a street vendor’s rose precedes her encounter with the kindhearted, facially disfigured man who earns her reprieve. And the terror she experiences once she opens herself up to mortal sensations felt even more chilling this time around. It felt immediate and intense, and I’m certain that had everything to do with hearing the climactic section of the score played live.

It was also just extremely cool to see Levi do her thing so calmly, so commandingly, before a packed house. She’s only 28 years old and this is her first film score — she’s probably best known as Micachu of the experimental pop band The Shapes — which makes her the rare woman composing music for movies today. Think about it: When you consider the most prominent and acclaimed composers in film history, names like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman come to mind. All men.

Levi is blazing a trail both musically and just through her sheer presence. She also happens to be the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s winner of the best music score award, tying with Jonny Greenwood for his work on “Inherent Vice.” I’d say we chose pretty well — and I can’t wait to see (and hear) what she does next.

5 Comments on “Under the Skin, In the Flesh

  1.  by  shaun etchison

    Wow am I jealous, any word if this will be done in select cities (Chicago) soon. I keep going back to this movie as one of my top 2 this year (Birdman being the other).

  2.  by  JozieLee

    Mujeres largas en vivo . . . long live women!

  3.  by  JozieLee

    Well, my gosh, no wonder the music was so important. The entire film consists of maybe 10 lines of dialog. Truly the music moved the plot along.

    Sadly, I find myself in the minority here – didn’t care for the film. Space Alien. Queen Bee. Feeding. Yikes. The nudity was WAY over done. Scarlett Johansen in her underwear and one victim nude was plenty. I felt her nudity was a draw for a primarily young male demographic. She’s an actress who’s proven her metal time and again. Maybe she likes having her body documented for posterity.

    Not my cup of tea. Fan of Mork and Mindy space alien genre.

  4.  by  Chloe Williams

    I couldn’t wait to see the film having read the book (which is much more of a polemic on factory farming, by the way). I was blown away by Scarlett Johannsson’s performance and I would have voted for an Oscar for her. The sheer bravery of her vulnerability was amazing. I’m not a huge nudity fan but in this case, it was totally appropriate and rather un-sexy, I thought. The lighting is so stark and I didn’t feel she was being erotic, just bare. I take my hat off to her. Her English accent was very precise and contrasted with the alien language spoken by the Glaswegians! The response to the guy with facial deformity – in that she didn’t react at all, was moving. She didn’t really notice it as all humans looked strange to her, and you realised the non-reaction from a young woman, was probably a first for him. However, I was so gripped by the film, the music was a bit subliminal. I’ll watch it again now and be more attentive!

    •  by  Christy Lemire

      Thanks for your thoughtful observations, Chloe!