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Cannibalism is a popular theme in lowbrow exploitation cinema, exemplified by films such as “Cannibal Holocaust” and “The Untold Story”, though the subject rarely rears its ugly head in more artistically and critically acceptable fare. The French film “In My Skin” is an odd beast in that whilst it is a decidedly art-house production, it gives the theme a bloody, existential twist, combining it with that of self harm, and coming up with the unique concept of auto cannibalism, the act of eating oneself. Obviously, this takes the proceedings into some fairly surreal, unpleasant territory, though director Marina de Van opts for the same clinical approach as Cronenberg’s early films of ‘body horror’, and though she includes some nauseating scenes, she eschews providing any explanations for the behaviour of her main character or indeed suggesting any kind of deeper meaning.
Unfortunately that last statement proves to be both the film’s strength and weakness, as whilst it keeps things free of cheap pop psychology, at the same time it never lets the viewer generate any kind of sympathy or connection with the characters, instead feeling like a detached observer. The end result is that whilst the film is quite shocking in places, and is generally interesting, though obviously in a morbid kind of way, it’s plainly open ended nature tends to be somewhat frustrating, being not so much open to interpretation as annoyingly obtuse.
The film is centred upon Esther (played by the writer/director), a young, ambitious marketing executive. One night at a party, feeling somewhat isolated from the proceedings, she wanders outside, falls, and gashes open her leg on a piece of metal. Esther doesn’t notice, or even feels, the nasty wound until a friend later notices her blood soaked clothes. Although she visits a doctor and gets the injury dressed, she finds herself increasingly fascinated with it, a feeling which gradually grows into obsession.
Esther’s obsession with the wound develops through a simple addiction to looking at it, through picking at it, to excavating it further, and before long, Esther progresses to making similar cuts in other parts of her body. This obsession starts to effect other areas of her life, making her feel increasingly disconnected from work and her confused boyfriend (Laurent Lucas, from the excellent “Harry, He’s Here to Help”) who cannot understand her unshakable desire to mutilate herself.
Director De Van is a long time collaborator of left field French filmmaker Francois Ozon, having written his “8 Femmes” and starred in “Sitcom” amongst others. Like Ozon, De Van’s direction is both unsettling and fascinating, and here she shows the same talent for imbuing everyday domestic life with meaning, and in skillfully adding surrealist touches without taking the film too far into the realm of the fantastic. This approach works well with “In My Skin”, and De Van manages to keep the film grounded, despite dealing with such an odd subject and including many strange, disturbing scenes.
De Van deliberately keeps a distance from Esther, and never gives any motivation for her self-mutilation, avoiding the obvious routes of psychological or sexual trauma. We actually learn very little about Esther beyond her odd addiction, and are shown no real angst or even problems in her life that could have cost it. If anything, she seems to be driven by a sense of self-discovery, or perhaps even a growing feeling of being in control of her own flesh. Either way, De Van gives the viewer full reign in deciphering Esther’s actions, a decision which may be liberating and stimulating to some, but annoying to others. This is especially true of the film’s climax, which is predictably vague, and lacking in any kind of catharsis.
This really is the root of the film’s problems, as such an apparently uncaring approach from the director tends to facilitate a similar viewer reaction. Without allowing the viewer to feel any kind of connection to the character of Esther, and with her having no obvious symbolic value, the film seems to be relying solely on its aesthetics, and as such it becomes almost like a bloody freak show. Although it does move along quite nicely, and the viewer is rarely bored, this does seem like a missed opportunity to provide a deeper exploration into the potentially harrowing area of self-harm.
De Van’s direction is similarly clinical, and she avoids any technical trickery or narrative devices, and simply allows the story to unfold, telling the tale in a simple, graphic fashion that focuses unflinchingly on the character’s deterioration. This of course means that there is a lot of gore in the film, with some truly wince inducing scenes, and many viewers may find themselves looking away as Esther digs further and further into her flesh.
The film’s visceral nature actually works on another level, as a fair amount of tension is generated as the viewer waits with a mixture of curiosity and dread to see just how far Esther will go in her strange journey. The problem with this is that it is likely to make the film quite unsuitable for most of the art-house crowd, though its abstract nature is equally likely to frustrate gore hounds.
As such, “In My Skin” earns a hesitant recommendation as an engrossing and unique, if ultimately cold and unrewarding curiosity of a film. Though it does interest through its detached portrayal of a strangely troubled young woman, and certainly shocks through some nauseatingly graphic and surreal scenes of self harm, it is a film without any emotional heart, and which is unlikely to evoke any strong feelings in the viewer other than a sort of fascinated revulsion.
Marina de Van (director) / Marina de Van (screenplay)
CAST: Marina de Van …. Esther
Laurent Lucas …. Vincent
L’a Drucker …. Sandrine
Thibault de Montalembert …. Daniel
Dominique Reymond …. La cliente