Thursday, 19 June 2014

The woman who fell to Earth… Under the Skin (2013) with Mica Levi and Orchestrate, Royal Festival Hall

Scarlett Johansson driving around Glasgow in a white van: that’s a dream story pitch on its own and yet this strange and affecting film took some time to get together.

Under the Skin was accompanied by composer Mica Levi conducting a twenty piece orchestra, Orchestrate, as part of James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival. The Mo Wax supremo and sometime UNKLE band leader, clearly has an eye for distinctive film scores as this performance and Max Richter’s work for Bashir prove.

Tonight Levi’s unnervingly inventive compositions formed a more holistic backdrop than the Richter works, purely because Under the Skin is almost a silent film: the music has more room and more to say in the context of the narrative undercurrent. Nothing is too explicit and as we gaze at Scarlett Johansson’s impassive face we have to strain to pick up the transitions not just in her character but the story’s meaning. All becomes clearer if not entirely clear and that’s a skilful balancing act for director Jonathan Glazer.

It’s been a long time since Glazer’s debut, Sexy Beast and his follow up, Birth but the wait has been worth it. In the latter film I remember an almost unseemly long close up of Nichol Kidman’s face which allowed her nuanced expression to reveal so much of her character’s situation. Here there are so many close ups of Scarlett you become almost punch-drunk but they’re almost all of the same in-expression. You look for human pattern recognition signals and there are none.

The film opens in space with what sounds like someone grasping for the sounds that make up words. The scene shifts to grimy motorway in Scotland where a motorbike rider carries a female body into a white van. Then we see Johansson’s character remove the clothes and coldly put them on.

Her character, later called Laura, drives the van around Glasgow and for a while it’s not clear what she’s looking for… shot after shot of people crossing roads, walking past George Square, conversing in Sauchiehall Street. But then she starts to stop and ask men for directions.

Some of these conversations were unscripted and with non-acting passer-byes and they are hilarious – broad Glaswegian instructions that are barely understandable to us natives let alone aliens (from the USA and beyond…).

Laura starts to invite men into her cab and we move on, assuming – hoping – that they’ve been dropped off… but it’s not to be. Laura has a run-down “place” on the edge of a quite estate where she takes the young men who, as they follow her in the expectation of physical congress get less than they bargained for…

On the coast, Laura watches a young man surf and, as she chats to him, they see a tragic drama unfold behind them as a man dives into the crashing surf in pursuit of his wife who is trying to save their dog. The young man goes off to save who he can and succeeds in dragging the man back to shore. He lies exhausted whilst the man returns to the water. Laura watches blank-faced then goes over, hits him over the head with a rock and drags him off. Behind her, the drowning couple’s toddler screams showing us all we need to know about her inhuman response.

This being a science fiction story, there has to be some meeting of the minds and picking up a man with facial neurofibromatosis she shows more kindness than to her previous conquests. The end result looks to be the same but; glancing at her own face in the mirror she changes her mind, releases the man and goes on the run…

She abandons her white van and walks off as far as she can, knowing that her colleague on the motorcycle will come after her.  Which he does, having recaptured her prey and then recruited two more riders.

Laura tries to eat but cannot stomach human food, she is alone amongst man and what future could she have even if she evades her own species retribution? Much like Mr Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth she is stranded in an alien world trying to assimilate and absorb. At one point she picks an ant off a human torso and gazes at it – it’s almost no different from the humans to her. But, as she makes her way she begins to show us what the humanity we take for granted might be.

She is helped by a kind man who keeps her warm and takes her home. He’s not going to take advantage and, in one of the film’s archly humorous moments, you see her fingers begin to tap along to Deacon Blue’s Real Gone Kid

But with the riders out to retrieve her and more inhuman humans around how will she survive?

Before Mica Levi waved her baton to start her music I had no idea what to expect. The string players began with rapid, course bowing creating a sound like an insect swarm but not one of this earth. Alien lines snaked over the agitated strings against a repeated drum pattern – relentlessly odd, a strange musical adventure that is genuinely one of the best evocations of other-worldly I’ve heard.

A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, Levi uses electronica alongside traditional orchestrations to create her distinct soundscapes. She’s also DY-d, produced IDM/electronica (whatever you bearded hipsters are calling it now…) and wild indie-pop as part of Micachu & The Shapes. There was a large section of noisy appreciators amongst the mainly young and funky audience many of whom seemed to know each other.

Mention should be made of the stunning cinematography of Daniel Landin: he makes all of Scotland look gorgeous from Glasgow to the highlands – I don’t recall seeing a better looking British film in recent years.

It is also, of course, great to see Scarlett Johansson in this kind of film showing there’s a lot more to her than the ability to squeeze into the Black Widow’s spandex costume. I can’t think of anyone who could have played the role better and her status adds to the effect.

A very interesting film and one to watch on DVD with the lights switched off and no one else at home: we took comfort in the buoyancy of the full house but this is one of those sight and sound combinations that will haunt…

The DVD is available from MovieMail and the soundtrack from eMusic whilst more details of Ms Levi’s musical explorations can be found on the Rough Trade website.

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