Thank You, Lars von Trier

Under the Skin

Just as Pulp Fiction spawned a number of crude imitations, it appears that Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves has inspired young filmmakers to mimic his bleak depictions of degradation. The British film Under the Skin, Carine Adler’s debut as a writer and director, brings with it the affectations of von Trier’s film — the hand-held cameras, the grim natural light, the misogyny, the attempted shocks — in the service of a painfully immature story without a shred of psychological understanding or depth in its main character.

Rose (Claire Rushbrook) and Iris (Samantha Morton) are sisters whose mother dies of a brain tumor shortly after the movie begins. Iris then begins a course of self-destruction, dumping her boyfriend, fucking one guy, then another, then yet one more, then the first one again, and finally ending up with the third, who proceeds to piss on her right there on the screen. The audacity! (The audience isn’t privy to the penis, bien sur, but it sure looks like urination.)

Anyway, while sexing her way to certain VD, Iris is also stealing from pregnant, insecure Rose (a far more interesting character, by the way) and alienating all her friends while dressing up in her mother’s wig and fur and some very revealing clothing. “You look like a slut,” Rose says. “Thank you,” says Iris.

Of course, after her first exposure to water sports, Iris breaks down and realizes that her behavior is simply a way of avoiding what’s really eating at her. And because the movie gives us nothing of Iris’ life before her mother’s tumor, it’s not difficult to figure out that she really misses her Mum. Tearful reconciliation with sister. The end.

This plot unfolds with a terrifying predictability, reminding me that the growth of independent cinema not only gives deserving artists a shot at recognition but also indulges people who have no business making movies.

The only bright spot here is Morton’s performance, but in the absence of a complex character, it mostly consists of masturbating, being naked, being peed upon, and describing sex acts (“I want you to come in my mouth,” she says to lover number one on the phone).

That Adler treats Iris’ descent, at least somewhat, as an erotic odyssey illustrates that she hasn’t a clue what she’s doing, or perhaps shows that she’s misguided enough to try for a soft-core-porn audience. (If you’re looking for a brutally realistic vision of sex as self-loathing, try Mike Leigh’s Naked, one of the more revolting films ever made.)

But the larger problem is that Adler’s plot can be described fully in seven words: Mom dies, daughter gets down and dirty. At least Breaking the Waves — a movie I loathed — aspired to more complicated and human psychological ground.

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