Mica Levi: Under The Skin – Review – Hull University
By Roger Crow, April 2017
You’d barely know there was an Oscar-nominated composer in Middleton Hall’s theatre a few minutes before Under the Skin is screened at the University of Hull. Mica Levi is so unassuming she could blend in with the orchestra. There’s none of the whistles and bells that accompany many acclaimed composers. Then again, this is not one of those big, bombastic gigs.
Levi’s breakthrough movie score put her on the map for directors like Pablo Larrain, who successfully exploited her talents for this year’s biopic Jackie. My only previous screening of Under the Skin was with one of those time-coded preview discs, and despite the numeric distractions, it blew me away.
Director Jonathan Glazer is not a prolific film-maker, yet Sexy Beast and Birth (a controversial Nicole Kidman curio) are two of the most memorable movies of the noughties. However, Under The Skin is his masterpiece.
Though not intended as a companion piece to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the tale of a sexy alien seducing men from her big white van is a perfect yin to that yang. There are deliberate nods to another Nicolas Roeg’s movie, Performance (Johansson looks like Mick Jagger’s stoned rock star with those iconic lips, mop of black hair and fake fur), while her alien echoes Julia, the femme fatale from Hellraiser who helps resurrect Frank, her half-formed lover.
Here Scarlett’s ET lures men to her squalid home so she can change them in some sort of inky processing factory. Seen a few hours after Ghost in the Shell, another movie in which Johansson’s character comes to terms with human empathy, it feels like two sides of the same coin.
The orchestra’s woozy strings and strange discordant musical patterns rightly put the viewer on edge, and while Scarlett barely says a word in the second half, Levi’s music speaks volumes. It’s fascinating to see the human touch behind those extraordinary sounds. As always with such screenings I have to remind myself those are real people creating those sounds rather than some off screen magic.
Under the Skin is not a pleasant movie. There’s a scene on a beach which disturbs me so much, I remember why I haven’t seen it again in three years. However, I’d love to see a ’making of’ film in which many of the Scottish supporting cast had no idea they were making a movie with one of the biggest stars in the world, but that would probably destroy the enigma.
There’s no doubt that Mica Levi is a stunningly talented composer, as she proved with Jackie. Just a shame that the tight space in front of the screen means light illuminating the musicians’ pages bleeds onto the screen, so at times it’s hard to make out what is going on.
Problems aside, this is another hugely memorable highlight from the City of Culture. I won’t be watching Under The Skin again in a hurry, because it is so disturbing. But to see Glazer’s memorable drama unfold with an orchestra, and the woman who turned movie scores on their head, is a real treat.