In My Skin

By Chris Hyde

December 9, 2003

Internet porn saves another relationship.

Frequent Francois Ozon collaborator and first time director Marina de Van challenges the art house crowd with a surprisingly self-assured tale of deep wound exploration.

The new French film Dans ma Peau (In My Skin) has come to America accompanied by stories of film festival walkouts over the bloody, self-imposed fate experienced by the movie's lead character (also played by filmmaker de Van). While chances are good that this hype is little more than a highbrow version of a classic exploitation marketing trope, there's certainly no doubt that there's plenty here that might unsettle the delicate constitutions of effete film patrons more conditioned to expect Merchant/Ivory blandness at their local Landmark. For this one's a penetrating story of modern-day individual dissolution that punctures as it pleases; and though the subject matter is disturbing in nature, the compelling and personally incisive nature of the storytelling makes this flick far more than your average gutbucket slasher film.

While this feature is de Van's initial full-length directorial effort, she's no stranger to the world of film. A graduate of the French School for Cinematic Studies (aka FEMIS), while attending this celluloid academy during the 1990s she met fellow classmate Francois Ozon. This turned out to be a propitious circumstance, with de Van eventually working with the filmmaker on a number of projects as both actress and screenwriter. Domestically, the most high profile of these films are Under the Sand and 8 Women, both of which were picked up for limited distribution on the North American art house circuit. For these two pictures she was involved only with the writing, but she also appears as an actress in two earlier films by the successful French helmsman (Sitcom and See the Sea, in the latter of which she plays a crazed stranger). In addition to her work with Ozon, de Van has acted in a handful of other French films as well as directing five shorts - a couple that even garnered some recognition in international competitions.

With all of this preparation as background, this young woman thus came to her first feature seemingly well situated to handle the vagaries of directorial duty. Choosing the auteur route, for her initial project de Van assumed not only the mantle of director but also took on the roles of screenwriter and lead actress. And as if all that responsibility wasn't enough for a virgin, she then also decided to up the ante by making her debut with a disquieting venture that revolves around a woman's strange experiences with her body. At the very least no one can accuse de Van of playing it safe with her introductory attempt at being in charge of a motion picture; most directors have entered the world of film with works far less imposing than a fractured and grisly story about a woman's detachment from the flesh in which she is enveloped.

The basic plot of In My Skin is simple enough: a young businesswoman named Esther attends a party with a work companion, only to fall and hurt her leg while exploring the grounds outside the domicile that is hosting the fete. Yet this relatively minor occurrence has drastic implications for the protagonist of the film - the wound that she suffers at first doesn't appear to cause her any great pain, though it's fairly obvious that it's rather more that a surface scratch. Seemingly not thinking all too much about it, she goes to a clinic and has it patched up before blithely returning to her corporate job and making plans for the future at home with her relatively charming beau. But as time goes on, she begins to develop an unhealthy fascination for the incision that a random piece of metal has inflicted on her person, beginning initially to dig tentatively into her suppurating flesh with improvised implements prior to descending into full fledged bouts of self mutilation and auto cannibalism. While there are surface implications here that may lead the viewer to believe that the filmmaker is commenting on larger issues of sexuality and market politics, at the base this is far more a story of individual detachment than any overarching social critique of sexuality or market power. The raw self- vampirism on display in this fascinating film is in the main a cerebral examination of an individual's ruptured relationship with her own corporeal self; the broader implications of the character's behavior are not necessarily an illustration of societal ills but are more an explication of this one person's journey of estrangement from her own anatomy.

There are certainly filmic antecedents to In My Skin that quickly come to mind while watching the scenes unfurl; touchstones such as David Cronenberg's biological obsessions, Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day and Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face are three that come straight to the fore. But de Van's take on obsessive bodily exploration is unique enough to stand on its own as a mutilating myth, though viewers who desire that their characters be a bit more than ciphers may balk at the lack of background motivation provided for Esther's bloodletting actions. The disengaging fog wherein Esther lives her life is in many ways utterly inexplicable, lending an edge to the narrative that may put off some filmgoers. From this corner, however, the mystery of her character only deepens the gripping nature of the film, reinforcing the sense of unease that pervades the whole project. It also doesn't hurt here that de Van's performance as the bodily bedeviled lead is nothing short of spectacular, bringing just the right touch of vulnerable assuredness to the difficult part.

In the end, though In My Skin can hardly be described as an "enjoyable" outing, its sharp point of view and the skillful handling on display ultimately make it a success and mark its director as one to watch for the future. For a first time feature-length effort, this is an extremely accomplished film, and by adding in a top-notch dramatic performance Marina de Van truly makes a powerful statement with this work. The straightforward story masks multiple levels of philosophical interpretation, thereby making this a movie that's very hard to dismiss as just another mere bloodsoaked shocker. When speaking of this one in interviews, de Van has boldly stated that "what she [Esther] does with the knife, I do with the camera," and that's truly as good a description as any as to what is happening onscreen with this ghastly effort. While certainly not for the faint of heart, In My Skin is in the final analysis an excellent and spellbinding example of the intellectual gore film-an underserved genre that we can only hope there will be more examples of in the years to come.



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