On sound and silence in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Under the SkinEloise Ross looks at the use of sound in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

“The soundtrack invented silence.” – Robert Bresson

Under the Skin begins in darkness, and in silence. Gradually, as lights shine fitfully, beginning to arrange the outline of an eye, otherworldly noises come into the fray. Synthesizers hum, strings scrape and lacerate. Using audio lifted from Johansson’s real life vocal training (the American actress masters the British accent in her role as Under the Skin’s nameless alien), sounds of a woman’s voice mouthing words and language can be heard, while onscreen, the outline of an iris and pupil begin to form. For much of its length, Glazer’s film is dark — only a few stark lights puncture the visual flow. Similarly, the tension between sound and silence never relents.

The most affecting, gut wrenching, and indeed, near-paralysing element of Under the Skin is its sound and, as an essential component of this, its silences. Just as the film opens in absolute silence, it ends in silence too, only this time, it is textured by soft winds and falling snow. As Bresson wrote, silence can be musical in its resonance. This flurrying sleet is the sound of contact, of snow falling on a body — the alien’s, and our own, in the audience. This moment recalls Birth, Glazer’s film of a decade earlier, whose opening sequence sees a man running through the twisting expanse of New York’s wintry Central Park. He collapses suddenly, and just as suddenly, stillness and silence follows. The only sound left is the soft patter of snow falling on a ground already covered in heavy snow — an almost-silence, accompanying death.

Once the alien has created herself using Johansson’s body (or rather, her skin), she begins her work on earth in a simultaneously crowded and desolate part of Glasgow. In this first ‘creation’ scene, Mica Levi’s accompanying score throbs with strangely human-sounding exhalations of breath. Its low tones and ominous beats resemble Christophe Beck’s score for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Passion’, which accompanies another vampiric predator, Angel, as he hunts for women.

The moments of silence in Under the Skin show Johansson’s alien in control, while sound often signals threat. Silence follows moments of victory; after a harrowing sequence of four deaths in a drab and nightmarish coastal expanse, accompanied by almost no sound except for the constant roaring of a violent and unforgiving ocean, she rests in her van, listening to the radio. She is silent. She sits, her stillness emphasised by the contrasting movement of the passersby outside. There is also an extraordinarily long sequence of silence that accompanies the first reveal of the process of her capture; an almost absolute withdrawal of sound from the soundtrack. Observing the slow, strained movements of two male bodies submerged in a gel-like substance, black as molasses, the only sounds are the occasional groans and creaks coming from their bodies. After minutes of silence, one body pops like a balloon, with the flat sound of a cymbal to match, the skin left gliding in the liquid, loose and empty. The liquid is womb-like, an echo chamber, a space of entrapment, recalling what David Toop describes as an ‘amniotic ocean’ in his book ‘Sinister Resonance’. Though the alien’s prey can hear and see each other, they are restricted in their movements, remaining paralysed while the female body that lured them walks freely above.

Later, we see the alien sitting in a van, her motionlessness contrasting starkly with the moving bodies of pedestrians outside the van’s window in the rain. From somewhere in the distance, a train can be heard, filling the silent sonic void as, perhaps, it come closer to her, and as she notices the sound. Men outside begin to attack her van, trying to beat down the windows, shaking her protective shell. Savagely pulled from her silent cocoon with the aggression of sounds both human and machine, she loses control.

The alien’s relationship with sound and silence also express her grasp of what it means to interact with humans. After her encounter with a victim to whom she shows some form of empathy — a man living alone with neurofibromatosis who also feels uncomfortable in his skin — she releases him, and finally engages with her reflection, staring at her face in an extended period of silence. The silence grasps her and immerses us, until a fly begins to buzz at the window behind her. The fly irritates, and eventually Levi’s soft, atmospheric score returns. With this unwelcome sonic interruption, she realises that she can’t continue her impassive hunt for men — uncomfortably, she is developing feelings. Later, being welcomed into the home of a male stranger, she hears music from a radio in the man’s kitchen. He taps his foot in accompaniment, and as the camera lingers on her hand, she eventually begins to tap her fingers. Whether this gesture is unconscious or an effort to appear human is unclear, although given her prior responses to surrounding sounds, it seems likely it’s the former; that she is becoming more like the people around her.

One of Under the Skin’s most remarkable scenes is one in which the alien looks at herself in a full length mirror, her full body in reveal. She looks upon her body a gentler, more attentive gaze than she does her face, caressing herself with an acceptance that turns to familiarity, rather than distant cautiousness. She lusts for humanness in a would-be sex scene, but her lust is painfully empty — that is, it could be painful, if she quite knew how to feel. The beautiful melody of Levi’s track ‘Love’ accompanies, with its gorgeous, aching string composition conveying the tenderness of new intimacy. It contains strains of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album Loveless, although here, Levi underplays the music’s discordance, opting for something more downbeat. The two bodies kiss and touch each other, but there is no hope for love here.

The chasing motorcycles of the film’s final scenes have something of a cruel and distancing video game aesthetic. She is lost, and she is hunted by her compatriots on motorcycles and by the violent and cruel lust that favours the vulnerable. Levi’s fitful score contains hollow rhythmic beats, like the striking of a medieval executioner’s drum. Glazer’s film succeeds in the meeting of its narrative and sensory restraint, resulting in a series of enthralling sensory provocations. The film is at once slow, observant, and detached, yet immersive and entirely encapsulating.


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