Wide Angle: Women with a controlling interest

When Carine Adler tried to bring a realistic woman to the screen, she met a wall of opposition from producers, backers and even actresses

"I'm still not quite convinced that a woman can go around screwing lots of men and get away with it," says Carine Adler. "And it makes me really pissed off." The director is talking about her first film, Under the Skin, a haunting study of grief which stars Samantha Morton as a young woman who comes to terms with her mother's death by embarking on a string of anonymous sexual encounters. Unsettling and sometimes harrowing to watch, the film articulates uncomfortable truths about masochism and female desire.

"It's not autobiographical," Adler adds, hastily. "I didn't trawl bars to find out what it's like or anything. I based my ideas on a book called Mother, Madonna, Whore by a forensic psychiatrist called Estela Welldon. She suggested that while men externalise their anger, women internalise it through bulimia and anorexia, or become involved in promiscuity and prostitution. I found these ideas really interesting because most films show this externalised, male violence."

Born in Rio to a Hungarian mother, Adler comes from a matriarchal clan of grandmothers, aunts, cousins and sisters. She was determined to make a film that dealt with female sexuality without idealising women. Under the Skin shows sisters fighting and lying to each other, women betraying one another over men. "I wanted to show that women are competitive. That we're complex. That we're not always nice," says Adler.

Given the film's subject matter, it's perhaps unsurprising that Adler has struggled to get it made. From the producers who found her storyline "slight", to backers who thought her lead "unsympathetic", to the actresses who refused to audition for the "un-PC" lead role, Adler's difficulties illustrate the problems of bringing a real woman to the screen.

Taking inspiration from the character played by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's Naked, Adler knew from the start that she wanted her lead to be an anti-heroine. Although she'd relished Linda Fiorentino's femme fatale in The Last Seduction ("She's in control, she's enjoying sex, couldn't give a shit and wins. I thought that was brilliant"), Adler was keen to avoid the genre trappings of a thriller. "I was drawing a character who feels very cocky about her conquests, but afterwards gets depressed because her pursuit of sex is not about sex, but about displaced grief, about losing yourself."

Surprisingly, for such a powerful female lead, Adler had difficulty attracting actors to audition. "So many women are afraid of being politically incorrect," declares Adler, "I don't think my film is particularly PC, but I don't think sex or the unconscious is politically correct, and why not show that? Why are men allowed to have all the fun? Why do women always have to be the positive role models?"

Of those that did read for the part, Adler found many too timid. "They seemed so anxious to please," she sighs. "All the great actors like Pacino have an aura of being uncontrollable. I think women are so hung up on the idea of having to be good girls that they find it hard to show that potential danger."

If the actresses auditioning were unused to playing with power, then Adler's male cast found the prospect of playing two-dimensional sex objects equally disturbing. "They looked like frightened rabbits," laughs Adler. "Because of the shooting schedule they had to come on for the day, take their clothes off and go. Well, I don't know if you noticed, but none of the men take their clothes off. They were so uncomfortable with it, and I didn't want Sam to take hers off, so in the end everyone kept their clothes on."

Adler's cast may have remained fully clothed, but her film will crawl under the skin of anyone who sees it. Thank goodness Adler's own "niceness" didn't stop her from battling to bring it to the screen.

`Under the Skin' is released on 28 Nov

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