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In My Skin (NR) (2003)

Wellspring Media

Official Site

Director: Marina de Van

Producer: Laurence Farenc

Written by: Marina de Van

Cast: Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas, Léa Drucker, Thilbault de Montalembert, Dominique Reymond, Bernard Alane

Rating: out of 5

In My Skin begins with the neatest opening-credits plot précis created since Saul Bass retired; names in plain font appear over a split-screen of normal pictures on the left and their inverted x-ray counterparts on the right, neatly literalizing the title (which subsequently grows even more literal than some audience members will be able to stomach: Be prepared to see, if not what’s within skin, then a lot of what lies beneath). Then the sequence goes one better, as the dextral x-rays fail to show the same things as their opposite normal counterparts. That, in symbolic shorthand, is what transpires here: Esther (de Van) first cuts herself to see herself better, and then slowly loses her grip on her heightened perspective.

Esther is a rising star who specializes in the Middle East at a consulting and marketing firm; her best friend (Drucker) is a conventional blond beauty, and she’s got a devoted boyfriend who’s on the verge of leaping into co-habitation. Yet despite all this, she can still go to a party and wander off into a yard, bored and alone, like a character in an Antonioni film; unlike Jeanne Moreau or Monica Vitti, she wanders into a sharp metallic implement rather than emotional emptiness. Next she finds herself compelled to inflict her own conscious cuts; when she finds out how much it freaks out her boyfriend, she tries to stop, but ends up retreating to hotel rooms for secrecy in which to cut herself, making up car accidents and other occurrences to explain her wounds.

Gruesomely closing in on in-depth (ha!) footage of various sharp objects penetrating skin, In My Skin coasts through the dullness of Esther’s life on various moments of shock which propel the film until its next encounter with masochism. Yet de Van’s choice to film herself in the lead role feels less like punishment than some obscure form of masturbation. Craning over herself in a bathtub or in overhead shots of blood dripping onto her face, she’s able to examine her body in ways that most people can’t even conceive of. Indeed, the increasingly extensive mutilation sessions smack of erotic charge: a close-up of Esther’s moaning face might as well be an orgasm. With all the blood and, eventually, consumption of flesh, come the inevitable twin metaphorical overtones of vampirism and artistry. The former is too rote to spell out, and as for the latter, de Van makes sure everyone gets it by having Esther buy a camera to take still photographs of her bleeding wounds. The artist as self-destroying fearless explorer; got it, thanks.

What takes In My Skin beyond a rote examination of the self-destructive nature of, alternately, being alienated and/or artistic, is how bracing it makes all the pain. Easily the bloodiest French film since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, de Van trades in the mutually assured sexual destruction (and accompanying languor) of that film’s vampires for a crisper visual style and less emphasis on atmosphere. What makes de Van’s choice so initially understandable is how intent her environment seems on swallowing her. From the first scene, Esther appears uncomfortable with her body, coming to a party in a severe get-up that covers just about every inch of skin, and her choices of clothing colors tend to blend in with the wallpaper and lighting, leaving her barely visible. Blood, however, helps her clothing stand out. It would be easy to go that one extra step and make a movie about how the corporate world + stifling materialism can drive someone to the brink of insanity, but de Van avoids the easy critique—indeed, Esther is very invested in her job, and the only chastisement she seems to take seriously is that her odd behavior is an abdication of responsibility.

As the film winds down, it’s got nowhere to go but up in outré style and intensity, so de Van begins shooting it like a horror movie, all ominous Steadicam shots down hotel corridors and distorted imagery, but it’s not necessary. By locating discontent and physical rebellion as a one-person effort rather than some kind of cooperative Fight Club, de Van makes the boldest leap in studies of alienation and discontent in years. In My Skin tells us that solitude and isolation can be just as disturbing and important as collective anarchy.

—Vadim Rizov


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