Western society has ingrained in many of us certain gendered expectations of behavior for grief over a loved one. Men can act out a little, but are expected to be stoic and to be strong for the people around them. Women may be allowed to be more “emotional,” but they are also expected to act within certain limits of behavior. So when Iris (Samantha Morton) loses her mother before resolving many of their conflicts and dives into a spiral of promiscuity and emotional outbursts, it is a shock to say the least.
We get a premonition of her emotional spiral from Under the Skin’s opening shot. Iris is drawing on her naked body. Her drawing is childish, amateurish, yet she is clearly a woman comfortable in her body. This juxtaposition of Iris’ sensuality with her essential innocence and childlike nature is at the core of Carine Adler’s only feature. Early scenes with her, her mother (Rita Tushingham), and her sister Rose (Claire Rushbrook) quickly and efficiently lay out the dynamic that will persist even after her mother dies. Rose is clearly the responsible one who takes care of not only her mother but her sister as well, while Iris is the baby of the family, probably because her mother treats her as such, in her doting and scolding alike.
Under the Skin is very much a reflection of Iris’ mental state. Her voiceover dominates and presents some startling juxtapositions that are definitely transgressive. For example, when her mother’s body is being cremated, the film cuts between Iris having a one-night stand with a stranger and the cremation while Iris gives a sexually explicit account of how that one-night stand went. Clearly, this is Iris’ way of coping. It is notable that there are no scenes of the mother’s prolonged suffering; indeed, there aren’t many scenes of much traditional grieving, as if Iris is avoiding dwelling on true pain and misery and skipping to more bearable memories. Adler makes a strong choice in eliding certain events while focusing on unexpected ones in Iris’ life for an unexpectedly forceful emotional impact.
While Iris’ coping causes a strain between her and her sister, the film does not come off as judgmental of Iris’ behavior. Much of this is due to Samantha Morton’s performance, possibly her best in a career full of remarkable ones. Though her character sometimes acts childishly, she knows how to tamp down Iris’ petulance. She is also very much the initiator of the sexual encounters that she goes through, and she never comes off as a victim of the men, more as a victim of her own weaknesses and grief. We see a sign of her sweet, loveable side when she auditions to be a part of the church choir. Her trembling voice and timid demeanor almost instantly ingratiate her with the mostly elderly church choir.
The fact that her first impressions of hearing the church choir coincide with another voiceover about yet another sexual encounter gives us a hint of how to understand Iris. In a strange way, both music and sex are her ways of losing herself and experiencing something ineffable, possibly divine. Such a comparison would be deemed blasphemous from most religious standpoints, but for Iris she clearly doesn’t have a view of morality influenced by a Puritan mindset.
Yet Iris’ best efforts are futile. She dives further into grief. When she goes out clubbing, she wears a wig that is eerily reminiscent of her late mother’s hair. All this while, we haven’t seen much of Rose, her older sister, but some scenes of an argument with her husband about Iris’ promiscuity and a late night chance encounter with Iris when she begs Rose for money to get home show that she isn’t dealing well with her mother’s death either, even though it seemed that she had done the right thing by moving on with her life. While this is very much Iris’ story, Under the Skin does not forget that dealing with grief comes in many forms and one method isn’t necessarily more effective than the other. Both sisters are avoiding their emotions in different ways, but with the same results since they avoid really losing themselves.
This is Carine Adler’s only feature to date, which is a great shame. In Under the Skin, she managed to present a character that stood out even during a decade when New Queer cinema prospered and a renaissance in British cinema was ongoing with powerful works from Mike Leigh and others. In some ways, Under the Skin fits in with British cinema of this time. There was an interest in the internal lives of working class characters, who would often act out in violent or promiscuous ways. Yet Adler distinguished herself by presenting a female character with an indubitable ownership of her sexuality and dared to make her unsympathetic, while also filming her story through an empathetic lens. If this movie came out today, over twenty years later, it would still be shocking and groundbreaking since even today filmmakers (mostly male ones) struggle to create convincing sensual female characters that aren’t filtered through a male gaze.