Under the Skin (is Under Mine)

Under the Skin is described as a science-fiction-horror-art film. I hardly know how to talk about Scarlett Johansson as this alien seductress but what I can’t help talking about is the thing that’s still haunting me three days later: the score.

It was composed by the brilliant Mica Levi (and produced by Peter Raeburn, who recommended her to director JonathanGlazer). Mica primarily used the viola to write and record the music, deliberately seeking out the most “identifiably human” sounds the instrument could make. She

Insert creepy music here

Insert creepy music here

then altered the pitch and sometimes the tempo of these sounds to “make it feel uncomfortable” which she accomplished with crazy amounts of success, I tell you what. It made me UNCOUNTABLY uncomfortable.

Glazer had her writing music to express Johansson’s feelings as her character experiences things for the first time, with the music following and reflecting her in real time, so to speak – “What does it sound like to be on fire?” he asked of her, and oddly, she had an answer. Another scene where the alien Scarlett attempts to eat cake is a stand-out for me, but is actually accompanied solely be the normal clatter of a popular family diner. The stark absence of scoring is as jarring as the creepy, otherworldly music can be.

The greasy, sinister sound of the viola is accompanied by percussion whenever a new man (victim?) follows Scarlett into the abyss. This music is unrelenting and aggressive, and it repeats with each new conquest. In an article for The Guardian, Levi wrote: “Some parts are intended to

Mica Levi, photo by Steven Legere

Mica Levi, photo by Steven Legere

be quite difficult. If your life force is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” Well, I’ll give her alarming. And unnerving. The sound is experimental, but at times she can get a whole orchestra in on it and it gives you the shivers.

Pitchfork wrote that “the strings sometimes resemble nails going down a universe-sized chalkboard, screaming with a Legeti-like sense of horror.” There’s nothing hummable or toe-tappable in this soundtrack, but it’s filled with innovative sounds that your body reacts to on a visceral, immediate level, leaving your mind racing to catch up.

I still can’t get those string out of my head. They contribute to an audio-visual experience that’s unequal parts tension, perversion, anticipation, anxiety, and a big ole dose of the willies. The willies! Oh man, tonally and aesthetically this movie is disturbing. I’m disturbed, guys. There’s no going back.

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28 thoughts on “Under the Skin (is Under Mine)

  1. emmakwall

    I love effective movie scores. I only really gave the film Sunshine (2007) a chance because of the music, now it’s in my top 10 films. Without that score, I might never have watched it again!

    I’ve seen a lot about the film, very intriguing. I think I’ll think I’ll wait until it’s on Netflix though 🙂

    Good review!

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  2. Dan

    Just a word of warning: I saw this fucker over a year ago now, and that soundtrack STILL haunts my nightmares. It’s one of the most sickening (in every sense of the word) scores I’ve ever heard. The film is supremely unsettling, and all the better for it.

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  3. Brittani

    Having read the book, I was disappointed they only adapted 1/3 of it. They left out the most interesting parts, so it didn’t really work for me as a whole. That was disappointing. I wanted to love it.

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  4. sweetarchive

    I watched this film twice and loved the score. It did a great job at getting me edgy and a little nervous. I’ll always have this film in my mind… it stands out for sure, and so does the music. Great post, Jay. Loved that fact that you talked about the score rather than the film. A different perspective 🙂

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  5. Created by RCW

    Have to admit that I found the story completely baffling and quickly became disinterested in ScarJo’s complete lack of emotion.

    To your point, however, I have to agree that the soundtrack held my attention and kept me from completely dozing off.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Very probably because there was no story! I couldn’t recommend this movie to anyone because there’s no plot. It’s really more like a string of art house images, some of which work and are beautiful and striking, and some of which don’t…at least not for me.

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  6. Jordan Dodd

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more, that soundtrack is incredible. I have never heard a string instrument like a violin (viola, whatever!) used so well, and to such chilling effect. Under The Skin is Kubrickian in a lot of ways, including the score.

    Keep an eye on my page, Nat from WriterLovesMovies is gonna write a guest post for my Monday @ The Music section about this soundtrack. I love her site so I’m looking forward to it!

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  7. Pingback: Alien Invasions of Earth! | Assholes Watching Movies

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