Katie Goh | 15 May 2017
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) opens with a bright white light shining into the audience, which then morphs into an eye over the span of five minutes, accompanied by a crescendo of buzzing violins. The opening is disturbing and abstract, setting the tone for the film’s sonic and visual imagery and for the alien language created by Mica Levi’s soundscape.
In the film, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien wearing a woman’s body, who drives around the streets of Glasgow seducing men and bringing them back to her lair where they sink into a reflective pool of black liquid. Film noir meets sci-fi as the alien uses her siren’s call, luring men to their deaths without discernable motive.
Mica Levi’s soundscape accompanies the alien on her prowl for victims, functioning as the film’s sonic imagery. Moments of tension are almost unbearable with the distorted pitching of violins, inspired by György Ligeti whose work featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Like Ligeti, Levi uses a restricted musical palette, reflecting the alien’s limited emotional vocabulary. A recurring three-note motif pervades the film, lingering horribly on the highest pitch, such as on “Lonely Void.”
The motif’s piercing screech is the film’s siren’s call; as Levi describes, “[I]t’s her tool. At the beginning, it’s like fake – it’s her perfume, it’s the way she reels in these guys with a tune. Then it deteriorates, it becomes sadder. We called it the ‘capture’ melody.” The alien is the ultimate femme fatale: her sexuality is performative as she literally wears the female body and projects an exaggerated hyper-femininity to lure men to their watery deaths.
As the film progresses and the alien begins to experience authentic emotion and humanity, the soundscape morphs. Instead of the distorted, alien three-note motif, Levi introduces warmer and more recognisably “human” notes, such as on “Love”. The track’s romantic swell reflects the alien’s emotional response to her first sexual encounter separate from her predatory siren role and hyper performed femininity.
Mica Levi’s second film score was for Jackie (2016), Pablo Lerrain’s biopic of America’s most famous widow, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The film chronicles Jackie’s response to the aftermath of her husband’s assassination as she simultaneously processes her personal grief and works to mythologize her husband’s legacy. Both Lerrain and Glazer’s films are about alien femininity: whereas Under the Skin centres on a literal alien playing as woman, Jackie follows an alienated woman. Both women are acting – projecting an idealized image of femininity in their different contexts.
On a surface listening, Levi’s score for Jackie appears to play less of a distinct role in defining the film – it is used more sparingly than in Under the Skin and is a more conventional film soundtrack. However, it similarly functions as a reflection of Jackie’s emotional state as Levi sonically captures her grief and loneliness.
The score moves between surface and depth as Lerrain explores Jackie’s public and private personas. On “Vanity,” melodic flutes play as Jackie performs her public persona, a conventional portrait of sweet femininity. Underneath the woodwinds, however, assertive strings and drums hint at Jackie’s intelligent manipulation of her public image. Moments of emotional distress recall the distorted pitching of Under the Skin, such as on “Car” when whining, bitter strings play. Musical horror motifs clash with ‘60s ballroom symphonies; a juxtaposition like the bloody gore splattered on Jackie’s iconic pink suit.
When deploying strings, Levi uses glissandos – the glide from one pitch to another –to distort the score. ‘It’s something that happens if you slow [your playing] down, you get this glooping and distortion and morphing of [sound]. It’s something I really like the sound of, but it can be quite expressive as well,” describes Levi. The glissandos give the score depth and tension, combating with the sweet lightness of the flutes as Jackie’s public and private personas clash. The distortion created by pitch change is a sonic reflection of the film’s composition, as Larrain continually shoots Jackie through veils, windows, and mirror reflections.
Levi’s soundscapes are what anchor both Under the Skin and Jackie. These soundscapes capture the emotional responses of their protagonists and act as the expressive sonic imagery for the films. Levi’s distinct use of eerie glissandos and perverted pitching evokes a siren’s call as both women project an image of idealised femininity used to lure in their audience. The siren’s call is the sound of the social Other – the alien and the woman – and ends up consuming the protagonists as they, like the victims in Under the Skin, are lured in by their own performative femininity with tragic consequences.
Katie is currently studying for her MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh via Belfast and Glasgow. Her research interests include women’s domestic fiction, modernist short stories and postcolonial theory. Her other interests include poetry, ramen, and terrible horror films. Find her on twitter at @johnnys_panic
Article edited by Vicki Madden.