At the beginning of Under the Skin, an unnerving and brilliant little English movie, the 19-year-old Iris (Samantha Morton) lies on her bed naked, daydreaming about her mother while drawing on her own body with a black Magic Marker. This opening shot is a movie in itself -- the inscribed and mapped landscape of nakedness (the camera follows the pen raptly), the strange preoccupation and forlornness of the girl, the combination of adolescent dreaminess and womanly splendor. Under the Skin, which was written and directed by Carine Adler, is a movie about the female body cast in the form of an urban fairy tale. In Liverpool, a mother (Rita Tushingham) has two daughters named after flowers: There is Rose (Claire Rushbrook), the favorite, who is pregnant and happily married, and Iris (Morton), the younger -- single, rebellious, and unloved. When the mother quite suddenly dies, Iris feels nothing -- or nothing that she can bring to the surface -- and she pitches into a downward spiral of alcoholism and sex. Prowling the streets like a prostitute searching for her own Jack the Ripper, Iris is a little crazy, yet she's also just a self-hating girl hungry for connection. One can't help thinking to oneself, This is the way it happens -- this is the way someone loses herself and goes over the edge.
Samantha Morton, who is 20, has a long, very mobile body and short hair that makes her features seem large and eager and almost scarily ravenous. As Morton sprawls in bed in an erotic fog (Iris's head is filled with luscious dirty thoughts), she abandons herself to acting in a way that no young American actress would dare. Some of the sex scenes are squalid, but the movie itself couldn't be more delicate in feeling. Using a handheld camera, Adler follows her heroine down streets, in and out of bars and a rumpled apartment; the style is rough but lyrically alive and emotionally potent. Under the Skin really is a fairy tale after all: No frog prince appears, but the movie doesn't end in an alley, either. Carine Adler has made a genuinely erotic film without a tinge of exploitation.