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24th Seattle International
Film Festival (1998)

by Lyall Bush


Weekend Pick - May 29

Posted 29 May 1998

Under the Skin

May 29 9:30 Guild 45th
May 31 3:30 Harvard Exit

The reason you'll want to see this movie has everything to do with Samantha Morton, the young actress who incarnates the self-destructive lead character, Iris. Iris is scrawny-sexy, emotionally childish, addicted to the approval of others (chiefly men, chiefly in the form of sexual satisfaction), and while nothing she does in the course of this film is so bad, she's bad enough. Which, of course, may be good reason to skip this film too.

Morton is in every frame, and even when Iris is near the bottom of a long downward corkscrew Morton makes her seem willful and attractive. In the opening scenes she's gooseskin naked, lazily dragging the tip of a felt-tip pen over shoulders, breasts and navel, speculating waftingly in voiceover, "I love him. . . I sometimes wonder what it'd be like with someone else." It's a universal-sounding language of young women caught in the gauze of capital L Love. But for her the ideas are fresh. After her mother dies of cancer, she takes her half of the goods, split with her sister Rose, and spends a few days in shell shock, listening to Rose splutter out her grief about mum over the phone.

And then she just walks off the end of the pier. Boyishly cute in her baggy corduroys until now, Iris turns a corner on her sexuality after the funeral. She begins to experiment, turning up to meet Rose for lunch in a short black slip dress, big sunglasses, a worse for wear blonde wig, and all set off with a rabbit fur mini-coat (belted at the middle). Rose, pregnant, middle-class and working at a travel agency, pauses and says, "You look like a slut." But that seems to be Iris's way of coping. She drifts away from her job at the bus lost and found, and randomly selects men to sleep with, seeking ever rawer forms of humiliation from them.

The trajectory of "Under the Skin" follows the season in hell model you may remember from reading Arthur Rimbaud's poetry (on Patti Smith's recommendation) back in high school. But thanks to Morton's performance the film slips free of cliche and lets us see the necessity of Iris's fall. Like Rimbaud, Iris is willing to turn her senses inside out in the pursuit of seeing herself as someone else.

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