Movies, Music

On watching and listening to Under The Skin

Pal William handed me a DVD of Under The Skin last week, a movie that we had talked about before and which he recommended with such enthusiasm that I bumped it up my queue. Took me a while to finally pop the disc in, but glad I did. The movie is bizarre and unsettling and wonderful, and Scarlett Johansson’s character makes me afraid and aroused at the same time. In the beginning, it is a strange mix of what feels like candid, unscripted moments of Ms Johansson driving around a strange land and picking up strangers. Scenes of seduction that make you hold your breath while waiting for the pay-off. When it ended, two-odd hours later, I found myself tingling with excitement, the kind  that comes from consuming something that is beyond what you expected. 1

Nowadays, I prefer to go into movies without the burden of expectations that the publicity machine brings along. Oh, I am not talking about the big-budget franchises. That’s an infinite hype train subway where the exit doors lead to yet another platform and yet another ride. But it’s films like this, that come sans trailing numbers or colon-separated sub-phrase in the title, that bring me the most joy. Not just the way they play with the monotony of the three-act structure, but the way they give an actor like Johansson a role beyond the mundane.

But therein lies the problem – not boarding the hype train also makes it hard to pick a journey, and sometimes the ones you pick prove unworthy of your time. My criteria for this is simple – if I pause or get distracted while watching a 2-hour movie, I rethink whether it’s really worth my time. One of the ways to get around that is to watch movies only in someone else’s company, but that brings down the opportunity to watch a film at home by a large degree. I realized, after having finished Under the Skin in one non-stop sitting, how rare it had become for me to switch on my TV after I get home.

What also got me about that movie was the judicious use of music throughout the nearly-wordless sequences. Violins that play like cancerous lungs gasping for breath; creepy pitch-bends that make me feel as if there are glitches in my audio-spatial perception; the steady thump of a muted drum. This is music that truly lives up to the idea of the movie, the musical accompaniment to an anomalous entity exploring herself (itself?). The composer is a British lady named Mica Levi, stage name Micachu, and this is the first time she has worked on a soundtrack, can you believe that?

Parts of the music reminds me of both classic horror scores – mostly Bernard Hermann’s flamboyant use of the violin and Morricone’s intense giallo works. But the album that I had to go revisit, after the movie, was Wojkiech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; at first glance, there isn’t much of a similarity between Skin and Dracula, but my brain somehow established a connection between Levi’s keening violin scrapes and Kilar’s old-school orchestral maneuvers. In case you are wondering, there isn’t much of a resemblance. It was probably a resonance of the feeling in my gut when I watched Dracula for the first time as a kid.

 

Notes:

  1. I have yet to watch Her and Lucy – two very unlike films, I know, but part of ScaJo’s recent filmography that convinces me that this lady is one of the finest actors in the business today both in terms of skills and the choices she makes. I loved the short appearance in Chef, for example, and her New York Jewish girl in Don Jon
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