Under the Skin

British writer/director Carine Adler's debut film is an edgy character study of a young woman trapped in a dangerously eroticized form of grief. She is a numbed creature recklessly seeking through sex with strangers some sort of return to her senses.

Iris (Samantha Morton), who has the face of a 12-year-old waif and a voluptuous woman's body, lives with her moodily pregnant older sister Rose (Claire Rushbrook of Secrets and Lies) and their mother (the legendary Rita Tushingham of Taste Of Honey fame). This is one of those movie families whose members look not only unrelated but possibly evolved from different species. Though 19, Iris seems to be stuck in an adolescent funk. She's forever complaining to her perplexed boyfriend that he never talks to her, worrying that her mother favors sister Rose, and lying on the floor and drawing abstract designs on her torso.

When mum dies, this already unhappy child-woman drops her decent but dull boyfriend and begins to pick up male strangers at random. These sexual encounters are artfully photographed but explicitly described via voice-overs. This cues us that it's not just cold, heartless fucking that she's after, but a visceral passion that will pierce her sense of loss. Of course the guys she picks up are unaware of their therapeutic function and just figure that they've gotten lucky, while we in the audience wait for the fated encounter with the inevitable sadistic psycho. When he arrives you can spot him in a second by his rather severe haircut.

The viewer's attitude toward Iris may waver between sympathy and annoyance; her self-destructive impulses seem both understandable and stupid. Still, Morton's performance is thoroughly admirable, capturing the mercurial moods of someone struggling with an overwhelming and draining obsession. Rushbrook is also fine in the more subtle role of the comparably stable sister who turns out to have her own guilty secret. Carine directs in a loose, verité style that allows immediacy to override melodrama. And if the men in the movie seem a bit one-dimensional, well it's not really their story anyway.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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