The deferral of grief through sex is the theme of Under the Skin, the fierce, occasionally impressive feature debut of Brit writer-director Carine Adler. The central character, Iris (Samantha Morton), a 19-year-old in suburban Liverpool, loses her mother (Rita Tushingham) to a swift, unexpected cancer. Iris' married, pregnant older sister (Claire Rushbrook) is named Rose--her mother named her firstborn after her favorite flower. Iris assumes, maybe rightly, that she came in second to Rose in Mum's affections as well as in name and order.
Iris tells her live-in boyfriend (Matthew Delamere) that she wants to move out, and takes offense at the suggestion that it has to do with her loss. She gets her own apartment, picks up a strange young man (Stuart Townsend of Shooting Fish) at a movie theater and sleeps with him, and while she graphically describes the encounter in voice-over, we see her mother's coffin being cremated. Soon Iris has adopted a tarty new look and is screwing around as much as possible. Through it all, of course, she shows no outward sign that she's mourning.
The hard-edged, naturalistic manner in which all this unfolds suggests that Adler would like to be added to the Ken Loach-Mike Leigh list, a new Master of Brit Grit. Her cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, shot Riff-Raff and Ladybird, Ladybird, among other Loach films, and Rushbrook played a supporting role (excellently) in Leigh's Secrets & Lies. Adler's style is more impatient--with all the hand-held camera and deliberately ragged jump-cutting, Under the Skin sometimes feels more like the pop naturalism of TV's NYPD Blue than like the measured austerity of its models.
That's not all bad, though. Accomplished as Loach and Leigh certainly are, the unblinking affectlessness of their visual style can be deadening at times. Critics often complain justly against American commercial filmmakers who use MTV-style flashy editing to cover the lack of meaningful action in their movies. But how preferable is the opposite extreme--the use of naturalistic pace and performance style to cover the same thing? Okay, it's a little bit preferable--at least it allows for some good acting--but only a little. Naturalism shouldn't be an excuse for visual drabness.
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Happily, Adler seems to agree. There's a scene, early on, in which Iris and Rose meet for lunch, and walk down the street together, talking with barely controlled anger. The anger is there in Adler's technique, as well--in the loud click of the women's shoes on the pavement, in the brusqueness with which the camera whips around them as they walk. Adler hits just the right tone in the sex scenes, too; they're erotic, yet in a bleak, dispassionate way that reflects Iris' mindset. There may, admittedly, be some commercial expediency in the film's subject matter, but there's also psychological truth.
The real source of the film's power, however, is less Adler's direction than the performance of the young TV actress Morton, another of those fearless Brit waifs--Emily Watson, Sammi Davis and Jane March also come to mind--who can enact graphic sexual abandon without making fools of themselves. Even though Morton's naked and/or masturbating and/or getting it on throughout a fair chunk of Under the Skin, her acting doesn't seem exhibitionistic.
Under the Skin
Directed by Carine Adler; with Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham and Matthew Delamere.