At certain movies over the last few years, I've felt the way I do when I find myself engrossed in a particular type of contemporary novel. These are the sorts of movies that are less interested in plot than in exploring characters, in capturing the subtle nuances of tone and conversation, all the complex shadings that come into play between friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children. The experience of watching them is richer; they're open-ended in a way that mainstream films, which shy away from ambiguity and untidy conclusions, generally avoid. Comparing movies to novels risks falling into a couple of moldy old assumptions, like the canard beloved of novelists that movies can't hope to approach the complexity of the written word, or its bedfellow, beloved of film critics and ciniastes, that movies are inherently pictorial and any film that feels literary is, by definition, a failure.
But there's certainly no lack of feeling for the medium in movies like Stacy Cochran's "My New Gun" and "Boys," Angela Pope's "Hollow Reed," Nancy Meckler's "Sister My Sister," Lynne Stopkevich's "Kissed" and now Carine Adler's remarkable "Under the Skin." It may be less significant that all the films on that list are made by women (though it certainly matters in terms of the experiences they explore) than that all of them are first or second features. These directors seem to have sensed that the old forms don't offer the space for them to express themselves, and they've chosen to move into less easily defined territory, traveling by intuition, discovering how they feel about their characters as they go.
It's such moments of discovery that give the new British film "Under the Skin" its distinction. Made with a novelist's eye for detail and a quietly impassioned visual flair, the film is about two sisters coping with their mother's death. Rose (Claire Rushbrook, Brenda Blethyn's daughter in "Secrets and Lies"), who is in her mid-20s and is the eldest, talked to her mother every day and cannot imagine having the child she's expecting, her first, without her mother to give comfort, advice and reassurance. Rose's 19-year-old sister, Iris (Samantha Morton), the heroine of the film, leaves her job and her steady boyfriend, moves into her own apartment and drifts through a series of increasingly dark sexual encounters.
Sex as refuge in the face of death isn't a new topic (that's what "Last Tango in Paris" was about). What is new, I think, in "Under the Skin" is the way Adler weds that subject to an examination of how the death of a parent erodes our sense of identity. To put it simply, when the person who gave you life is no longer there (and when your day-to-day existence is still taking shape, as it is for most people in their 20s), it can feel like being granted the freedom to reinvent yourself. "Under the Skin" is about the terrors of that freedom. Adler neither condemns Iris nor shrinks from acknowledging the dangers -- psychic and otherwise -- she lands herself in. Adler is interested in negotiating the subtle and blurry line between liberation and bondage. Her movie is about a young woman who makes her first tentative moves toward discovering who she is while suspended over a void.
At first, Iris has to work for her mother's attention, telling silly jokes to break in on the worried dialogue Rose keeps up about her pregnancy. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Iris acts with an instinctive generosity -- bringing her mom a healing crystal, assuming the role of a male partner and cha-cha-ing her around the living room -- while Rose, terrified at the prospect of losing her mom, becomes controlling, brittle. (You can hear her terror in the way she admonishes her mother to think positively.) After their mother's death, Rose is the one who's more open about her sorrow. But she's also the one with the settled life, the middle-class house, the marriage, the job as a travel agent. And it's Iris -- whose subterranean sorrow fools Rose into thinking she doesn't feel a thing -- whose sense of self is being eroded.
Iris disguises herself in bits and pieces borrowed from her dead mom: the wig used to hide the effects of chemotherapy, an old rabbit-fur coat and pink sunglasses. She's both extending her childhood game of imitating her mother and blotting out herself. In her customary look -- cropped strawberry blond hair, peaches-and-cream skin, outfits of loose cords and sweaters -- Iris is exposed to the world. In her wig and fur, with lipstick and pancake, she's a painted doll, and you can feel it encouraging her, spurring her on. Iris narrates her sexual encounters in a voice-over, as if she were relating a fiction about herself. In a way, she is. When she takes a guy home from a club one night, there's a challenge in the way she pulls off her wig and tells the guy to kiss her, as if she's daring him to find her attractive the way she really looks. The sex in the movie has an erotic creepiness, a sense of dry desperation, of rot just below the surface. The apartment Iris moves into, with its shades of purple and pink and its mass of her mother's funeral flowers, seems to mix the pungent smell of sex with the oversweet aroma of death.
Sometimes Adler makes that contrast more schematic than it should be, as in a scene that cuts between Iris picking up a man in a cinema and her mother's casket being cremated. But much of the movie's "psychology" is more elusive than that. Adler encourages us to feel our way into Iris' head, rather than explaining her. Morton, making her film debut as Iris, is in almost every scene, and she's phenomenal. Adler follows Iris as she walks the streets of Liverpool, stops into a church to listen to a choir sing, goes to clubs and bars, wanders the lost-and-found warehouse of the city's bus service, where she works (a poetic touch that resonates beautifully).
Adler is alive to Morton's physical presence, her lithe yet womanly body, in a way that is, I think, unique to women directors: This is sensuousness minus voyeurism. We don't just get under Iris' skin, we come to know the texture of it. Much of the movie requires Morton to simply be Iris in front of the camera, an incredibly difficult task and one that requires an actor to shed any self-consciousness. Morton, with her light, lilting Liverpudlian accent and almost shy smile, brings Iris' physical and emotional longings to the surface again and again without ever making the character needy or pathetic, even as her situation gets scarier and scarier. Each rejection registers so nakedly on Morton that she makes you understand Iris' need to bundle herself up in her wig and shades. This is one of those rare performances that manages to be completely unprotected without ever going out of control. It's an emotionally harrowing debut.
Adler doesn't deny Iris' cruelty, the way she taunts Rose in her sorrow or lies to her about losing their mother's ashes, any more than she denies Rose's concern for Iris. It's easy to mistake Rose for a conventional, controlling bourgeois. She is conventional, but she's also grieving and fearful for her sister. Rushbrook plays Rose as a woman whose embrace of a prosperous, middle-class life has led her to decide that youth and spontaneity won't do her much good, and yet Rushbrook never loses sight of the love in this woman. Rose's need to act as Iris' mother may be annoying, but it comes out of a genuine desire to protect her sister. I was devastated by the reconciliation scene between the sisters. The reasons they give for the animosity they held toward each other are perfectly plausible: They're exactly the petty things I've watched come between siblings my whole life.
There's a tendency to treat any gritty British film as if it were a piece of kitchen-sink realism. (The casting of Rita Tushingham, who starred in Tony Richardson's film of Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey," calls up that lineage.) But "Under the Skin" is the work of a budding expressionist. There are times when I wished Adler relied more on her script than on her tilting camera, but she and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have devised visual equivalents for Iris' psychic whorl, particularly during a long drunken night that brings her to rock bottom. The colors are lurid, overripe, yet held in check. And Adler pulls off sequences that would sink in other hands, like the haunting dream scene where Iris, alone in the lost-and-found department, sorts through a bin of abandoned cell phones looking for the ringing one and answers it only to hear her dead mother's voice on the line. Adler's imagery has a physical immediacy and, in the final scene of Iris by the seaside, basking in the sensation of the wind through her hair and against her skin, a physical elation.
But the scene that sums up "Under the Skin" for me is the moment, toward the end, when Iris gets up on a nightclub stage during an amateur showcase and sings "Alone Again (Naturally)." It's an inspired choice, not because Morton is a great vocalist or because the song is anything but a maudlin piece of kitsch, but for the way Morton, who sings it with matter-of-fact heart, transforms it into an account of her experience that doesn't ask for pity, and a celebration of the sweet and conditional victory of finding your own voice. "To sing you must first open your mouth," Henry Miller wrote. "The essential thing is to want to sing." Both Adler and Morton have that desire in every moment of this amazing debut.