Under the Skin

(Carine Adler, UK, 1997)


From Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977) to A Winter Tan (1987), contemporary filmmakers have been irresistibly drawn to the saga of the driven, wilfully sluttish woman who walks on the wild side in desperate search of her own, uncertain identity.

British writer-director Carine Adler plugs into this somewhat underground tradition in Under the Skin, with mixed results.

There is the faint whiff of a clinical case study to this story of Iris (Samantha Morton) who, in the wake of her mother's death, spontaneously converts her every libidinal impulse into a wild, unstable set of neuroses, masquerades and psychological dissociations.

Iris's continual conflict with her sister Rose (Claire Rushbrook) stirs the primal trauma, in this filmgoer's mind, of Female Perversions (1996) – but, thankfully, Adler steers well clear of the pastel-coloured gloss and New Age sanctimoniousness of that movie.

Under the Skin breaks with the dominant, naturalistic approach of many British films. At moments it veers towards the jagged, fragmented style of much contemporary French cinema (such as the films of Claire Denis), and at others it tips its hat to the American school of 'amoral shockers' – movies like Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) which show us, without overt judgement, certain extremes of self-destructive and nihilistic behaviour.

However, the film does not entirely live up to these models. The presentation of Iris's sexual quest, although intense, quickly becomes a collection of fuzzy, vague, fantasy images – with Adler perhaps too intent on "drawing a line'" between free experimentation and eventual degradation. As in so many movies of this ilk, full-blown transgression slowly inches towards a rather banal normalisation.

The film has a bigger problem trying to reconcile its obsessive-compulsive itinerary – which is largely plotless and directionless, as obsessive compulsions tend to be – with the needs and pressures of feature-length narrative. Adler eventually imposes an obligatory journey upon Iris's solipsistic torments – and the attempt to reach a satisfactory closure is particularly weak and unconvincing.

Any arthouse moviegoer who is bored with the endless string of woeful American independent releases of late, or dissatisfied with the safe selection of British films we see here, will certainly be intrigued by Under the Skin. It is undoubtedly a different and daring work. But it is also a flawed, not terribly memorable piece.

© Adrian Martin March 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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