Friday, December 5, 2008

In My Skin

In My Skin is a disturbing piece of inward-looking horror, the work of writer/director/actress Marina de Van, who unleashes an unsettling terror from within herself in this extraordinary one-woman showcase. She plays Esther, a young and ambitious businesswoman who seems perfectly stable and ordinary in every way: she is rapidly moving up at the ad agency where she works, and starting to get more serious with her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas), with whom she plans to buy an apartment. Then a chance accident at a party changes everything for her in a mysterious way, as though a switch had been flipped inside of her. While walking outside, she trips and gashes her leg on some metal objects, cutting herself very badly, though she doesn't realize it until much later. This incident creates in Esther — or sets loose, perhaps — a macabre fascination with her own body, with its capacity for pain and deformation. She runs her hands along the scarred, uneven terrain of her leg, first with revulsion and then with a growing compulsion, an almost sexual satisfaction.

Esther tries to maintain her ordinary life, but is increasingly unable to. It is as though she has been overcome with a startling, irresistible revelation about herself, and she cannot resist picking at it like a scab. She begins cutting herself, tentatively and furtively at first, but soon with increasing abandon. There is a desperate bloodlust in her actions, particularly when she begins self-cannibalizing her own body as well as slicing it open. Obviously, the film is incredibly difficult to watch, and de Van maintains a queasy, claustrophobic sense of horror by keeping her camera mostly trained on herself, never flinching away even at the most gruesome bits. In one masterfully executed scene, Esther nearly breaks down at a business dinner, fantasizing that her arm has detached itself from her body. As the other diners obliviously exchange chit-chat, Esther looks in fascinated horror at her neatly separated arm, laying there on the table in front of her, as though it wasn't actually a part of her. She had the same morbid fascination, earlier, when waking up in the morning to find that her arm was dead and limp, unable to move after she had slept on it all night. It is as though she is being disassociated from herself, losing her identification with her own body, which is beginning to seem like an "other." She soon snaps out of it, reattaches the arm, and then begins to surreptitiously slice herself open under the table. De Van cuts away to a closeup of her forearm, the knife digging into it with flinch-inducing realism, opening up red lines in the skin.

Later, Esther retires to a nearby hotel room for a more intimate exploration of her body, bringing a steak knife with her. At the restaurant, Esther had watched her fellow diners eating, and de Van's associative cutting — back and forth from Esther's bloody arm to the plates of food, meat being cut and dipped in sauces — established an intuitive connection between self-mutilation, gluttony, and sex. In the hotel room sequence, Esther rips into her body with lustful abandon, burying her face in her wounded arm as though she were kissing a lover. She holds her arm to her lips, bloodying her mouth, eating and drinking from herself, smearing her face and body with blood. Her vampiric thirst for blood and skin is an echo of the similarly blood-smeared Beatrice Dalle in Claire Denis' equally queasy Trouble Every Day. Together, these two films, made only a year apart, reflect some kind of strange mini-zeitgeist of sexually charged cannibalism.

Unlike Dalle's Coré, who is a literal sexual predator, seeking satisfaction in sex that climaxes in gory devastation, Esther has simply become obsessed with her body as a body, with processes and needs that seem remote from her sense of identity: hunger, thirst, arousal, pain. Esther's obsessions increasingly reduce her to a feral and distanced state, a state of basic primal existence, focused on the nerve endings of her body and little else. It is, in this sense, an escape, though Esther doesn't seem to have anything in particular to escape from: a decent if slightly unsympathetic and temperamental boyfriend, a jealous, bitchy friend at work, the pressures of increased responsibility and performing in front of clients. Esther is utterly normal, utterly prosaic in her limited problems, and her retreat into this horrifying body obsession is a puzzling non-sequitur.

The film never posits any definitive interpretation of its horrific story, instead suggesting its themes indirectly. Esther is opaque, unreadable, her reasons for what she does vague and inexpressible even to herself. Her accident seems to have awoken something hidden within her, something that rejects the normal ambitions of her life — a home, a career, love, sex — and is intent on throwing all that aside, focusing inward instead of outward. Esther is drawing away from the world, turning away from everything and everyone around her to focus on herself instead. Her self-cannibalistic desire, with its sexual overtones, might be a bizarre, ritualized form of masturbation, and yet it's not at all clear that she gets much real pleasure out of what she does.

It's also tempting to read the film in a feminist light, as a commentary on the pressures of work and body image on modern women, but even that interpretation is only ambiguously supported by a film that drops few clues about its heroine's motivations. Esther's boyfriend, who's extremely troubled by the mysterious scars developing on her body, asks her why she does it; doesn't she like her body? She simply shrugs this off, and there's little to suggest that she is coping with an eating disorder or any kind of anorexic body image distortions. If anything, she loves her body too much: loves its taste, its textures, its contours, the way its terrain can be remapped and reshaped with only her hands and a knife. She loves it so much that, after removing a square of skin from her thigh with bloody surgical precision, she inquires at a local pharmacist about how to preserve the skin, to keep it "smooth and soft" forever. There is perhaps, hidden in this line, the fear of getting old, of losing youthful beauty, and Esther's mutilations might be an attempt to exert control over her body, to "preserve" it, even if literally in formalgahyde.

There is also something of the Cronenbergian hero in Esther, seeking renewal and change through extreme bodily transformations: she recalls both the grotesque mutilations of Cronenberg's 70s work and the sexual perversity of his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash, in which Rosanna Arquette plays a woman whose crippled legs are marked by vagina-like ridges, sexualized scars. De Van, however, does not share Cronenberg's inherent optimism about the possibilities of such perversions and extreme modifications. Whereas many of Cronenberg's best films are bizarrely hopeful, suggesting that abjection and self-mutilation can be a route to revelation and new understandings of the world, de Van's vision is singularly bleak. The film closes with a sequence of stifling claustrophobia, a lengthy, nearly dialogue-free stretch in which Esther cloisters herself in another hotel room with an arsenal of tools for cutting and ripping apart her body. De Van presents much of this sequence in split-screen, which abstracts the violence into the splatter of blood across a table, the red footprint on the bathroom floor, the knife smeared with thick, blackened blood, her tools laid out like a surgeon's implements. By this point, Esther is totally isolated, rending apart her last few connections to the outside world even as she tears apart her body. The sequence's climax is a closeup of Esther as she toys with a knife in front of her face, running its blade along her cheek and nose. This is essentially the point of no return, the point at which Esther completely forsakes her former life; if she could, prior to this, hide her scars beneath her clothes and pretend to normality, the moment when she deforms and cuts open her own face irreparably separates her from the rest of the world.

This is truly a bizarre, frightening, uncomfortable film, one which offers few answers and fewer handholds for unwary viewers. Many thanks to Jeremy of Moon in the Gutter, who brought this unforgettable film to my attention by naming it one of "the greatest films of the decade." Indeed.


Tony Dayoub said...

Sounds like a combination of Cronenberg (body horror) and Polanski (the isolation of Repulsion and The Tenant), and though it sounds fascinating on paper, I'm not sure I could stomach the actual viewing.

Ed Howard said...

Good point about Polanski, Tony, there's definitely some of that in there as well as Cronenberg. And yeah, if you have doubts about the gore then it's probably not for you. I have a pretty strong stomach and even I was feeling a bit queasy at certain points -- it's fairly rough, even if a lot of it is misdirection; she doesn't show quite as much gore as you think you see. It's equal parts fascinating and revolting.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Awesome Ed...I'm so glad you found as much to admire in this powerful film as I did. I think it is a really special work and I am glad I was able to help lead someone to it. Terrific post...

Soiled Sinema said...

I still need to watch this. It's collecting dust on my shelf.

Jackie said...

i'm reading this about 2 1/2 years too late but i love your interpretation. we have a lot of the same thoughts and i felt like i need to suss this film out. it was so hard to watch and i have no problem with gore usually.