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Under the Skin misses its mark.

By Brent Lancaster

JULY 27, 1998:  Sex sells. Images of lascivious, half-clothed men and women are used to promote everything from car batteries to dish detergent. The phrase has two meanings, though; sex sells products, but it also sells itself. Sex can turn us into stark raving lunatics who will sacrifice everything we hold sacred for the rush of something we don't really understand. We're all drawn in by the flashy veneer, and we sometimes invest more in carnal knowledge than we should—and end up being very disappointed.

Erotic imagery is more prevalent in the movies than just about anywhere else. Every action film trailer begins with a brief plot synopsis and builds into an explosion of action-packed images flashing on the screen with teasing glimpses of half-naked starlets thrown in. The ad for a recent Pulp Fiction rip-off, which shall remain nameless, featured a tantalizingly brief glimpse of two young cuties going at it, even though they don't come anywhere near each other in the film. Sometimes what is left on the cutting room floor will make for better promotion than what is kept in.

Consider the movie poster for Carine Adler's Under the Skin . Young starlet Samantha Morton is featured in a grainy black-and-white, head tilted back as if she is either locked in the throes of passion or enjoying a good shot of morphine. The film's title is written in a funky, almost Superfly-style script, and the caption reads, "her passion was undeniable." I hope that this misleading promotional layout was the brainchild of Adler's marketing people and not her idea, because the hormone-charged angle goes against everything that this movie is trying to say. At the risk of sounding like a pervert, the film didn't have enough actual sex, not to make the point that it wanted to make. This movie isn't even really about sex.

First-time director Adler intends to tell a tale of how sex is often used as an escape from an unhappy existence and can easily become an addiction. Set in working-class Northern England, this is the story of 19-year-old Iris (Morton) who is devastated when her mum dies of a brain tumor, leaving her with no family except her older sister Rose (Secrets and Lies' Claire Rushbrook). The relationship between these two sisters is lukewarm at best; Iris is young, wild, and single while Rose was mom's favorite-older, married and pregnant. After her death, Iris is devastated. She begins wearing her mom's wig and dressing like a harlot. Soon, she has broken up with her boyfriend and is having random sex with strangers. Iris' relationships with her best friend Vron (Christine Tremarco) and with Rose soon crumble, and Iris is left lonely and heartbroken. Adler wants to show that Iris is addicted to sex and is using it, like any other drug, to dull the pain of her miserable existence. To be quite honest though, Iris is not really having any more sex than a lot of people my age. Apart from one disgusting encounter, Iris is just sleeping around. Maybe I'm just a dirty American slob, but I think if Adler wanted to make a point about sexual addiction, she would have had to have been more extreme.

This is a simple story really, and that's its biggest problem. Iris is just a sad and lonely person, like so many others; her escape is sex, but it could just as easily be drugs, alcohol, or random acts of violence. Adler's plot has basically run its course by the twentieth minute; once we see that Iris is sliding into debauchery, it's just a waiting game to see how far she goes and whether or not she gains redemption. A few minor asides are thrown in, but nothing that would catch anyone off guard. So we're left with a character study, which does manage to carry the rest of the film, albeit with rather disappointing results.

Since the film's release in the US in early June, British-born actress Morton has garnered critical praise for her role as Iris. The young beauty who has appeared in every Brit lit adaptation from Tom Jones to Jane Eyre does an outstanding job of portraying Iris' blank stare and the fury that hides just beneath her skin. Critical reviews also draw comparisons between Under the Skin and Breaking the Waves, another British indie with a small budget, shaky single-camera filming, and an overall gloomy vibe that makes the UK seem like one of the most depressing places in the world. Both stories have a young woman engaging in random, sometimes degrading sex acts, but we actually give a damn about the characters in Breaking the Waves, and you don't get the impression you should care about the people you meet in Under the Skin.

Adler wanted to make the point that sex sells itself but came closer to the one about its ability to push a product. Though she makes a valiant effort, the young writer/director's reach exceeds her grasp. Under the Skin isn't racy enough to drive home its point to an American audience; after all, we're the country that spawned The Jerry Springer show.


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