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Tuesday, July 6, 1999

Going for more than two dimensions

While most films out there these days prostrate themselves before the altar of entertainment, there are still a few that dare to set different goals. "Under the Skin," the debut feature by U.K. director Carine Adler, is one such work, a cathartic rhapsody of sex and grief that is based in messy reality, and demands reflection on the part of the viewer.

"Under the Skin," which follows a young girl's descent into a world of desperate one-night-stands, was an out-of-the-blue success, taking an award for Best British Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival (beating out "The Full Monty" and "Nil by Mouth") and playing well internationally. Much of this is due to the smoldering central performance given by (then) 19-year-old Samantha Morton (soon to be seen in Woody Allen's "Celebrity"). Morton tackles the role of Iris, a feisty waif-turned-nymphomaniac, with the kind of volatile energy that's undeniable.

After the sudden death of her mother (Rita Tushingham), Iris begins to lose control. She has bitter jealous spats with her older sister Rose (Claire Rushbrook), quits her McJob, dumps her complacent boyfriend and starts to act on sudden sexual impulses, picking up some dodgy guys in theaters, clubs and even on the street. Like most encounters of this nature, the film veers between giddy, sexy highs and dark day-after lows.

Stylistically, "Under the Skin" plays like some kind of alchemic fusion of the workaday English realism of Ken Loach with the pop buoyancy and stylistic playfulness of Wong Kar-wai. (This is no surprise, given that Loach cameraman Barry Ackroyd was on this film; Adler showed him "Chungking Express" and gave him the brief: "Be bold.")

The film is indeed as manic-depressive as such a description would imply, swinging between searing, closeup confrontations between Iris and her put-upon sister Rose in drab one-room apartments, and giddy, color-splashed nightclub scenes shot and edited with punchy rhythms. There's also the jarring juxtaposition of nearly pornographic accounts of Iris' sexual exploits voiced over scenes of burial and church services.

In a recent phone interview, Morton discussed her career so far, and the project that has made her one of the U.K.'s most promising young actresses. Unlike many of her fame-obsessed contemporaries, however, Morton displayed an admirably punk sensibility.

How hard was it to get a break?

"Our nation's film industry, at the moment, claims to be thriving, but it's not really. It's still very biased, a very cliquey club to get into. It's extremely hard for young actresses. Offers are generally put out to successful actresses, whom the financiers will definitely back. I've had situations where I've auditioned for parts and not gotten the part because the financiers wouldn't back the film with me in the role, since I wasn't 'known' yet."

What attracted you to this project?

"Some of my actress friends read the script for 'Under the Skin,' but they had real problems with it, they didn't get it. But I thought it was brilliant.

"I had to get the part, because there just aren't any parts available where you can show so many sides of a personality. Most of the time, it's just two-dimensional characters, where plot overrides the humanness of the film.

"Story is what people want to see, but I just wanted to be involved in something, that even if only a few people saw it, would make them think about their own life a bit more."

Is this your general approach to which projects you take on?

"I'm very choosy about what female -- well, I can't do anything else -- roles I play.

"I don't work for money, in a sense, because I don't want lots of money. I don't want the things that a lot of people may aspire to -- fame, success. I'm not a celebrity in England. I've never gone down that path, going to premieres, or being seen at certain places.

"I've turned down a tremendous number of films since 'Under the Skin' was released in England two years ago, the reason being, I don't believe in any of the projects, I don't believe in why they're making it. I can't do that.

"The last two films I did were both in America. One was a very low-budget film that paid me absolutely nothing ["Jesus' Son," based on the Dennis Johnson novel]. In a way it was out of my pocket. And I was very lucky to get the Woody Allen film ["Celebrity"]. He saw 'Under the Skin,' and offered me a part. I asked if could I see the script, and he said yes, and let me read it. But apparently, nobody, no matter who you are, is allowed to read a Woody Allen script. He must have liked me a bit. [Laughs.]

Didn't you ever feel about Iris, especially after the phone sex scene where the guy basically uses her, that no woman would put up with this?

"No. She's desperate for someone to hear her and love her, but unfortunately, she fancies the wrong guy. He doesn't care. She wants to feel wanted in a sexual way. It's something she's never experienced before. But she's using them as much as they're using her -- she knows those guys are shits. She was in grief and this was her reaction, to devalue herself."

Do you think casual sex can ever fill those needs?

"Almost everyone I know who has had a lot of one-night stands says the same thing -- they wake up in the morning feeling very low, alone, dejected and lost. But then there are other women I've spoken to who say, 'No, I just want them out of my bed. We did that, fine, they're gone.' "

Do you feel that "Under the Skin" is fairly perceived as a "heavy" film?

"I feel that there's a lot of humor -- when it played to a Nottingham audience they were laughing their heads off. But maybe that's a regional thing; it was familiar to them."

What advice would you give if you saw a friend losing it like Iris?

"If you love somebody, you just have to be there for her at the other end of the tunnel. Someone could go off the rails for six months, or three years, but the hard part is to be there through it and at the end. I think everyone's entitled to self-discovery. But if things were getting dangerous, then obviously it would be, 'Right! You're staying at my house and you're not going out!' "

"Under the Skin" is playing at Le Cinema in Shibuya.

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