Carine Adler’s 1997 drama, Under the Skin, stars Samantha Morton in her debut role as Iris Kelly. A young, curious woman, who dives headfirst into a downward spiral of grief, promiscuity, and loneliness.
After the death of their mother, Iris, and her sister Rose, react in dramatically different ways. While Rose (the suspected favourite) is openly distraught and emotional, Iris represses all feelings, and instead ventures on a one-woman oblivion of casual sex with strangers.
“You look like a slut”
Samantha Morton and Claire Rushbrook (Rose) are fantastic as on-screen sisters. As the title implies, both Iris and Rose hide things from one another. They live in different realities, and often seem worlds apart. Rose is the stereotypical first-born: stern, controlling, and seemingly together, while Iris is a textbook younger sibling: carefree, silly, and daring – something, deep down, Rose is jealous of.
It’s clear within the few short scenes, the pair share with their mother (Rita Tushingham), that Iris’s optimistic outlook irritates Rose. While Iris opts for healing crystals, dancing, and buying her mother a wig to cover her hair loss, Rose is a realist and wants seriousness and answers. Interestingly, while Rose is talking to her mother, there’s a vase of red roses visible in shot.
So it’s not surprising that it’s Rose who’s extremely emotional when she dies. There’s a wonderful shot of Iris, unmoving, leaning against the door, while we hear Rose’s sobs off-screen. Similarly, when their mother’s coffin is being lowered down the stairs of their home, Iris narrates how she’s feeling in a deadpan tone – numb and void of any real feeling.
Iris feels that, as Rose was supposedly the favourite, she deserves to feel upset. But Iris feels like an outsider – because she wasn’t the favourite, why should she be allowed to feel pain? Not long after this, Iris takes a turn for the worse, and leaves her nice, but uninterested boyfriend, moves out, and sleeps with a stranger. And then we’re gifted with arguably the most haunting part of the film.
Clips of Iris and the mystery man having sex, intercut with scenes from her mother’s cremation. While this is happening, Iris narrates the scene, deadpan and void of emotion (He takes my nipple in his mouth. I move his hand between my legs). It eventually reaches a climax, just as we’re shown her mother’s coffin being swallowed by flames.
After this, Iris dons her mother’s wig, glasses and coat – completely different from her usual fresh-faced, confident, androgynous style. Her new choice of outfits and makeup, portrays her desire to be somebody else. And she feels that looking more traditionally feminine (longer hair, makeup, skirts heels), is a simple way to hide from her true self and attract men.
On her new, more feminine, yet revealing look, Rose comments:
“You look like a slut.”
Getting a kick out of Rose’s thinly-veiled jealous comment, Iris thanks her. And as a way of escaping it all (while living up to Rose’s jibe to irritate her more), Iris starts drinking heavily, and sleeping with more random men.
Unsure of how to deal with the grief she’s feeling, Iris searches for love in one-night stands. During these scenes, we hear her commentary again, reducing the sex she’s having to a meaningless chore. Throughout these scenes, Carine Adler uses handheld shots to make it even more uncomfortable.
And becoming somewhat of a director trademark, Adler’s use of off-screen, non-diegetic sound, makes Iris appear alone and naive. This is evident in the scene in which she’s blindfolded on the floor, waiting for another random man to seduce her. We can only see her, the man is hidden behind the glass of a window pane. He then proceeds to urinate on her. This style of filmmaking makes it all the more revolting and unnerving, as we can only see her, it’s a surprise to us too.
Similarly, Adler uses dutch angles, slow motion, and harsh lighting sparingly at first. But as Iris starts to lose touch with reality even more, these techniques are used heavily – mirroring how quickly and seriously she’s declining.
And when talking about Iris losing control, you simply have to discuss Samantha Morton’s debut (!) film performance. At just 20 years old, Morton nails the grief-stricken, conflicted Iris, taking on countless nude scenes and uncomfortable sequences. She’s also incredibly spunky, passionate and fun – not too dissimilar to Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Renton, a year earlier, in Trainspotting,
From this, Morton would go on to win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in Longford, a BAFTA for Best Single Drama for The Unloved, and be nominated twice for an Oscar for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
‘Sisters under the skin’
After almost obliterating their relationship through deceit and jealousy, both Rose and Iris realise they need each other. In the final act, Iris confesses she had her mother’s ashes all along, and Rose admits she took her mother’s ring so Iris couldn’t have it.
This sharing of secrets, breaks down the barriers between them, and they share an intimate, emotional moment. During this, they realise they’re not actually that different. And suddenly the title begins to take on another meaning:
‘be (all) brothers/sisters under the skin’
Said of people who have thoughts or feelings in common, despite other obvious differences between them. “As much as you dislike your chatty new co-worker, she’s as nervous and insecure as you are—you’re really sisters under the skin.” Despite their countless differences, underneath it all, they’re sisters, and they need each other in order to deal with the pain they’re both feeling.
Adler’s creation might be of its time (the colour palette alone screams nineties), but it revolves around something everyone has experienced, and will continue to do so – the death and subsequent grief of losing a loved one, aspects that are still relatable today. Under the Skin is engaging, but when it comes to narrative, it’s redundant. With this in mind, would Adler’s work be as effective if it wasn’t for the stellar, breakout performance of Samantha Morton?