Friday, December 09, 2011

Eyes on the Critics' Prize: Under the Skin

I first learned about Carine Adler's Under the Skin from the trailer that showed at Boston's Coolidge Corner Theater, during an excursion to that venue in the spring of 1998. That timing means I was probably seeing Taste of Cherry, a move that made such profound artistic and intellectual impressions on me that I didn't expect to leave the cinema still haunted by a two-minute promo that played before the actual feature began.

U.S. ads for Under the Skin were full of breathless blurbs for its young, unknown star: "...and introducing international sensation Samantha Morton!" "Samantha Morton is extraordinary!" "A wild and heartbreaking actress!" This register of excitement has more recently attached to Sundance revelations like Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones, and Elizabeth Olsen, but compared to the generously long theatrical runs that Martha Marcy... and Winter's Bone managed in high-traffic arthouses, Under the Skin was more of a Tyrannosaur, and maybe even less hyped than that. "International sensation" or not, you really had to be reading festival coverage or hitting well out-of-the-way cinemas to know about the movie, or to catch the preview-reel glimpses of its tiny but feral star, so instantly and intimidatingly charismatic, whether rattling at fences, strutting around in a fake fur four sizes too big, or firing off those wounded and terrible stares. The reviews that did circulate frequently compared her to recent-newbie Emily Watson, laying groundwork for Charlie Kaufman's straight-faced casting joke ten years later in Synecdoche, New York, but I remember thinking of Annie Lennox, circa "Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)."

The trailer for Under the Skin sells it, only somewhat misleadingly, as a triple-headliner in which Morton shares the screen with Claire Rushbrook, the rebarbative daughter of Brenda Blethyn's Cynthia in Secrets & Lies, and with British 60s icon Rita Tushingham, in a terrible wig that you're correct to peg as one of those huge, woolly insults that regularly gets added to the tremendous injury of chemotherapy. Tushingham, playing Morton's and Rushbrook's mother, is diagnosed with a tumor very early in the film and is dead inside of a quarter-hour, but some artfully unsettling edits obscure just how long the character has actually been ill, and how far any "treatments" have proceeded within her clearly doomed case. No matter how sudden her passing actually is, and no matter whether the wig is covering a head poisoned to baldness or just an unloved thatch of grays and whites, her daughters certainly receive the death as an absolute shock. Neither of them is recovering her breath quickly: Rushbrook's Rose because she is heavy with her first child and can't tolerate losing her own Mum just as she's about to share so many memories and seek so much advice, and Morton's Iris because as headstrong and bold a personality as she has already incubated for herself, she is clearly not ready to be a parentless girl.

Rushbrook, such a bitter pill in Secrets, is impressively comely and textured here as the pulled-together sibling, though she does not deny herself a few grandiloquent sulks and rages. Nonetheless, Under the Skin is unambiguously Morton's show. Narrative questions abound: when will Rose have her baby, and how much does Iris resent her settled domesticity—maybe even envy it, maybe even aspire to undo it? So shortly after confiding her near-virginity to her one close friend, is Iris freewheeling into a series of risky sexual encounters because this is what Iris would be doing anyway at her age and station, or because she is seeking voluptuous solace for the loss of her mum? If so, what is up with that? Or is her curiosity about her sister's body—a reaction flavored with wonder, tedium, and active disdain—making her curious about whatever her body might be capable of withstanding, or enjoying, or choosing of its own accord?

Under the Skin is a warring-sisters-who-love-each-other drama, a randier Brit parallel to Georgia, complete with closing song. Concurrently, it is a grief drama as well as an erotic adventure laced with danger, pleasure, and humiliation, refreshingly centered in a female perspective that is neither censorious of libidinal urges nor blind to their risks and ramifications. More than any of these things, Under the Skin is a collage of moods and textures, often turning on a dime: a sisterly rapprochement that suddenly tears off a bigger scab than the one it just healed, a mundane living-room bicker interrupted by some loopy and attention-seeking charades, a sexual enthrallment, physically embodied and inwardly narrated, which is simultaneously cross-cut with the blasting of a coffin in a crematorium oven. The movie gets away with almost all of it, even this last provocation, without seeming pretentious, tasteless, or desperate to shake you. Prototypical scenes involve Morton's Iris duking it out with a random passerby over the use of a payphone, Iris assaulting Rose at a train station and then rebuffing a Samaritan for intruding into their intimate scuffle, and Iris learning the hard way, in an impressively uninterrupted shot, that the slightly boring boyfriend she has recently shunned is not just dawdling around, waiting on her return. Often enough, it's Morton's electricity that lends fire or frizz to a mundane encounter. Then again, she's just as capable of lowering the temperature on a baity bit of screenwriting by underplaying in that sphinxlike way of hers, or by retreating into one of her icy, dilated silences.

In one episode, tonally daring without getting off on sensationalism, Iris attracts a one night stand who's more brutish with her than she seems to have expected or asked for. As she giggles through his rough seductions, it's unclear whether she is marshaling humor to normalize and disavow something she wishes weren't happening, or if she is genuinely finding this coercive-submissive bit more titillating than she would have thought. That she's wearing Mom's chemo wig and her matronly, garish coats and dresses as she picks these men and takes them home only adds more mystique to the psychology of what Iris is up to, and to the number of facets Morton is able to explore as she holds Iris up for us and turns her in the movie's prismatic light. Morton seems like a more intuitive than technical actress, yet she has that Kazan-style knack for appearing to observe the character and to be her at the same time. She's both a critical reader of Iris and an almost worryingly wholescale possessor of her body, both highlighting and erasing her own labors as an actress the way Gena Rowlands used to do, despite a wholly different repertoire of movements and mannerisms.

I didn't actually see Under the Skin for another five or six years after I learned about it, by which time Morvern Callar had become enough of a personal religion that it was high time to catch up on past Mortoniana. These remain the two movies in Morton's career that place her most squarely front and center, luring us with her otherworldly blend of emotional nakedness and unnerving impenetrability. They would make for quite a double feature, particularly since they share some aesthetic motifs as well: images and lines of dialogue repeated as structuring motifs, totemically recurring snatches of music, a fascination with placing Morton's mercurial visage under color-filtered club spots, freezing street lamps, and sere fluorescent side-lights. She's once again playing a character who reveals herself through behavior rather than dialogue, though the behavior seems to be surprising her almost as much as it is us. And Iris, unlike Morvern, doesn't imagine for a moment she needs to leave Britain to "get away"; she's looking for the secret city inside the city where she already lives, and skulking around the forbidden cities inside her mind and her body, too. I doubt it would even occur to her to go anywhere. Morton, stiff-necked and yet constantly darting her eyes and swiveling her gaze, plays Iris as someone with almost zero peripheral vision. She really drinks in whatever's in front of or behind her, yet she barely considers anything that might be away from her. This makes the loss of her mother all the more confounding, to the point where Iris imagines she is still around, and lies to her sister (and possibly to herself) about what she's done with her ashes.

Stylistically, as its title signals, Under the Skin does not don the kind of cool mask that Morvern does. If the Ramsay film plays 300 variations on Morton's face, Carine Adler's film (as remarkable a debut for the writer-director as for her actress) is at least as preoccupied with her body. Adler lets lengthy scenes play out as medium- and long-distance sequence shots, in which Morton is sometimes as tense as steel cording and sometimes as furious as a lynx. Sometimes she luxuriates in languid reveries, though in the biggest departure from Morvern, she's quite chatty, a pip at parties, and a passive-aggressive pest. If Morvern has the glistening surfaces and thrumming, viscous undertows of a record like PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, then Under the Skin is more of a Rid of Me, maybe even a 4-Track Demos, both in the sense that it's got high-voltage hooks and bracing aspects that stand fully on their own merits and in the sense that it simultaneously portends even greater, more daring, more elliptical triumphs to come.

Sadly, those subsequent triumphs have not arrived for Adler the way they have for her newly minted star. Despite the Boston Society of Film Critics anointing her as their extremely inspired choice for Best New Director in 1998, Adler has never released a second feature—though I think I read recently that she is working on one. (Ring a bell, anyone?) The same group selected Morton as their Best Actress, in a year when Fernanda Montenegro and Ally Sheedy scooped the lion's share of these prizes—and when critics proved entirely resistant to the Blanchett-vs.-Paltrow duel that dominated the Oscar chatter. In recognizing Morton, the Beantown crowd proved remarkably prescient about a performer who would soon enough be wowing audiences in Jesus' Son, Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report, and Morvern Callar. They also managed to cast an even stronger vote for shoestring cinema and artisanal programming than their peer groups, although Central Station and High Art were hardly megaplex bookings.

Under the Skin was Morton's Hunger. Though she managed to be everywhere within three years' time, much like her exact contemporary Michael Fassbender has managed to be (and in a similarly broad spectrum of parts), the Boston writers earned their bragging rights, at least among the North American critical establishment, for spotting her first and in foreseeing where she was headed. Though it took me a while to catch up, I so appreciated the tip-off. To sustain the analogy, I am still eager to see Carine Adler's Shame, though in a way, that's exactly what Under the Skin already is. In any event, if I'm now paying forward to you the brilliant recommendation I inherited from Boston's gutsiest exhibitors and then from their savviest critics, I'm delighted to do it.

P.S. A gracious thanks to DVD Beaver, my source for all the images I have reproduced for this article. If you're interested in buying a DVD, use a link from this site, and keep Gary Tooze doing what he does best!

P.P.S. If you enjoy this sort of performance-centered review, especially with an actress at its center, be sure to visit the special section devoted to the Best Actress Oscar at my main site... and expect new content over there after New Year's!

Previously in this series: Dead Ringers ('88) — Safe ('95)

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