Women and Men and Sex and Movies: A Conversation With "Under The Skin"'s Carine Adler
by Dimitra Kessenides
Carine Adler's directorial debut "Under The Skin" revolves around the
character of Iris, and how she copes with the death of her mother,
raising a lot of questions about women, sexuality and grief. It is
likely that women will have strong opinions about the film's issues,
given the sexual excursions of the young protagonist, and the striking
contrast to her straight-laced older sister in the immediate aftermath
of their mother's death. What drives Iris' actions? I'm still not sure.
But there is no question this is a female character to be reckoned with.
The film embarked on its festival journey late last summer, and carried
quite a buzz with it before landing at New York's Angelika Theater last
Friday (grossing, according to Variety, $12,103 over the weekend).
indieWIRE sat down to talk to director Carine Adler on a Saturday
afternoon in mid-April, after a day-long conference on Women in Film at
New York's Barnard College. Adler's film didn't escape reference at the
conference. Mention of this got her talking about women and men and sex
Carine Adler: The thing that kept coming back... some [think] the
subject matter [is] slight. Like coping with the death of a mother is
In talking to people afterwards, I realized that the film does divide
people, and not by gender. It's not like all women like it and all men
hate it. Some men don't like it, and some women don't like it. It's just
not been a gender thing. There were men and women who thought it was
One woman, an Australian journalist who asked me that question, she said
she didn't have a problem with the film but that a girlfriend of hers
thought that women shouldn't be represented like this, and that's
exactly one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. You know, sex
isn't really politically correct, but somehow women are supposed to be
the nannies of morality. You know, men can have all the fun, they can
ride around, and play the antihero and all of that. What are we supposed
to do? That really annoys me.
indieWIRE: What inspired this story?
Adler: Men generally have explored violence a lot. Sex, which film can
represent so well, is something that is underrepresented, especially
female sexuality. This film in particular, the inspiration came from so
many different sources. One was the desire to do a film on female
sexuality. Second was to do a three-dimensional woman's character,
complex. Not necessarily immediately sympathetic, kind of an
And then, I did a short, I found a book called "Mother, Madonna,
Whore," which was by an analyst. Actually a psycho-analyst, he's a
forensic psychologist who deals with female sexual perversion, consulted
on the film. So I've always been interested in... you know, I guess a
lot of men like doing violence, and I happen, like a lot of my
girlfriends, to be interested in, 'oh why did he ring, why didn't he
ring,' that kind of thing, you know, that I just find really
fascinating. It was based partly on life, I mean, I think that
character, I'm sure we all know somebody like that. But you have to
dramatize it, so I did push it quite far.
iW: Did you intend for the death of Iris's mother to liberate Iris in
some way, is that part of it, or is it just her way of coping?
Adler: It's really denial of grief. I did want to show what is somehow
the source of compulsive sexual behavior. It could be alcohol or drugs,
but sex is certainly a part of this, especially nowadays when it's so
dangerous. Manic behavior is usually brought about by denial or
depression. So it's not a liberating journey, it's a compulsive journey,
brought about by her inability to face up to grief and depression. So in
order to avoid that, you have to heighten your experience.
iW: How have people reacted to Iris's motivation?
Adler: It's so extraordinary. There have been people who came to me
after screenings at festivals and said they understand her completely.
Others have seen it a couple of times, and come to some understanding
after things have happened in their lives. It does require a certain
amount of sophistication and it's got nothing to do with age. Not
sophistication, maybe, because I've had very young girls talk to me
Also, the other thing is, I wrote this film [and] to make a first film,
you need to draw attention to yourself, especially a very low-budget
film. There are so many independent films made, low-budget films, that
you need to draw attention to a certain degree, without being cynical.
And I've been surprised, it's been kind of exhausting just showing the
film and then seeing and hearing about it, how people react. I just
don't know what to expect anymore... It has made a huge difference,
and the prizes help. It has been quite hard getting films made, but with
this, it made things easier. It's opened a huge amount of doors, which
were not open before. Now everything is completely different.
iW: At the conference earlier today, the point was made that unless
there are women programming festivals internationally, nothing much
happens at these venues either. What do you think about this?
Adler: Well, Kay Armitage at Toronto, she programmed my film. She's
hugely important, amazing, I've learned so much from her. I do find that
men don't censor each other but women do censor each other, they do. I
feel that I've been, that my peers sometimes... well, I have
tremendous support from women also, so that might not be fair to say.
I think what's liberating is when you just write, creatively. It's very
hard to write a script without having to think, on top of all that, 'am
I representing women properly.' Self-censorship really gets in the way
iW: There certainly are some women out there who play a part in what we
see on the screen. And they, especially ones in Hollywood, maybe like to
see certain images of women on the screen.
Adler: Yeah, I agree with you. The men can sort of play bad boys, and be
cute, charming, aggressive. Like the David Thewlis character [in
"Naked"]. I mean, nobody asks Mike Leigh if it's autobiographical...
As a woman, it's like you haven't got the imagination to think of a
situation like that, you have to have lived it, which I find very
frustrating. Every Q&A, everywhere, they ask if it's autobiographical.
iW: But isn't that a legitimate question? I mean, autobiographical can
mean different things.
Adler: Absolutely, but I'm not sure that people would ask Mike Leigh. I
guess, yes, but, it's funny, I've wondered the same things when I've
seen art, Auteur-type films. But when you're on the other side, it's
just ughh... very different.
[Dimitra Kessenides is the Festival Coordinator for Thessaloniki USA
1998, a festival of recent films from Greece and the Balkans, running
from May 29 to June 4 at New York City's Cinema Village.]