In My Skin Review
ESTHERWandering in the garden to snatch a brief reprisal from a tedious business party she is attending with her best friend Sandrine (Léa Drucker), Esther (Marina de Van), a successful young businesswoman, accidentally cuts her leg on some metal. Initially unaware of her injury, she only discovers what she has done when she notices her own bloody footsteps. The fact that she didn't feel pain intrigues her, and she gradually becomes obsessed with self-injury, harming herself more and more severely while unsuccessfully attempting to conceal this from her horrified boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas). Consumed by a primal urge to cut herself, Esther's life begins to spiral out of control as she loses her grip on reality.
I cut myself in the storeroom. It'll be okay.
How did you cut yourself?
On a metal thing.
I guessed that. What were you doing with it?
Whenever the topic of self-harm is raised, the first thing most people think of will probably be the all too common image of teenagers slashing their wrists. It is something that permeates the media so much that we have probably become somewhat accustomed to it, to the extent that we are no longer surprised when we hear of it. However, with Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin), Marina de Van has created an intriguing piece of work that takes the concept of self-mutilation a number of steps further and raises many interesting questions as to why so many people feel compelled to harm themselves without attempting to provide a convenient solution to this serious problem.
De Van, a frequent screenwriting collaborator of 8 Femmes and Swimming Pool writer/director François Ozon, undertook a triple load of work by saddling herself with the roles of writer, director and lead actor, and indeed part of the reason that Dans Ma Peau works so well is the constant impression that every aspect of the film is coming from the same mind. As was the case with Amber Benson's independent pet project Chance which, like Dans Ma Peau, had one person assuming the duties of writer, director and star, it seems that, with character studies such as these, their power comes from the fact that the creative lead has bared her soul to such an extent that her own thoughts and fears have a profound influence on the character she is portraying. De Van is not, herself, a self-mutilator (at least as far as I can tell), but it is not hard to see Esther's cutting (and biting, and tearing) as a metaphor for the negative ways in which so many people treat their minds and bodies. Esther didn't have to be tearing lumps out of her arms and legs - she could just as easily have been smoking or drinking herself to death, or popping pills. Only when self-harm is presented in such an overt manner are people able to see just how outrageous these actions are. De Van bares her body as much as her soul, and by the end of the film, we have an intimate knowledge of every part of her. This is in keeping with the character study aspect of the film: by putting everything on display and holding nothing back, she is able to make the character of Esther completely convincing and put the viewer in a situation of knowing absolutely everything about the harm she has inflicted upon herself. Like Chance, Esther is not a completely faultless character - she's obsessed with her career, she repeatedly lies to both her lover and her best friend, and her self-abuse could easily described as the actions of a over-priveleged yuppie who doesn't appreciate how fortunate she is - but de Van is able to make us root for her because she witholds nothing.
Esther's reasons for cutting are as disturbing as the act itself. While not explicitly spelled out in the film, it becomes fairly clear that Esther mutilates herself because to feel pain is preferable than to feel nothing at all. The root of the problem is that, like so many businessmen and woman, she is nothing more than a tiny cog in a much larger machine. She is respected not for who she is but for her academic achievements, and her bosses have no interest in her beyond the ways in which her experience might benefit their company. This is wonderfully illustrated in a lengthy sequence in which Esther takes two clients out to dinner and converses with them regarding the finer points of cuisine and culture. Their dialogue is completely devoid of personality and their discussions reduce various countries, including Japan and Italy, to mere statistics whose inhabitants are nothing more than potential customers. Even her boyfriend doesn't view her as an actual person but rather as a business opportunity and a way for him to climb through the corporate ranks. Indeed, human contact seems so alien to Esther that she ostracizes Sandrine, her only true friend, because she views her as a jealous competitor rather than someone who is genuinely concerned for her wellbeing. Terrified of not being remembered after she is gone, a late scene in which she has a piece of her skin tanned to preserve at least some part of her is genuinely touching despite its unpleasant imagery.
De Van's powerful performance is the obvious highlight of this movie. Looking bizarrely like a French Juliet Landau, she imbues every scene with her uncomfortably deadpan expression, and makes it abundantly clear that any emotion Esther shows is a performance rather than the real thing. Laurent Lucas, in the role of her boyfriend Vincent, is suitably intense or concerned whe the need arises, and the lovely Léa Drucker gives a wonderfully fragile performance as Esther's concerned best friend Sandrine. Likewise, the film's technical aspects are first rate, employing various interesting tricks including split-screen, slow and fast motion and innovative sound design to highlight Esther's fragile state of mind and increasing physical weakness. Pierre Barougier's cinematography is tight and characterized by lengthy takes and copious numbers of close-ups, and Esbjorn Svensson's minimalist score is wonderfully effective at carrying along the film's rhythm and pace. Having previously directed a number of experimental shorts, de Van here tackles subject matter that I would probably normally associate with such films, but is perfectly adept at pacing her material with a feature-length running time in mind.
Whether or not I should recommend this film depends on how strong your stomach is. The gore, while not particularly gratuitous, is certainly plentiful, and while I am not a particularly squeamish individual (in fact, I can't remember ever being repulsed by violence in a movie) I definitely cringed at a number of moments. The make-up and prosthetic effects, by Dominique Colladant, are disturbingly realistic, to the extent that when Esther is lying on the floor, drenched with blood and sucking on strips of torn flesh, it really does feel like the real thing. The fact that she is oblivious to the pain does spare the audience at least some of the anguish, but this is definitely not a film for those who are prone to indigestion. By shooting Esther's bouts of self-devouring in a manner normally reserved for sex scenes (one involving Esther scuttling into the office's store cupboard to snatch a moment of leg-tearing, and another featuring her rolling around passionately on a hotel room floor with blood on her face and an arm in her mouth), de Van adds yet more disturbing Freudian imagery, and it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the film was recently passed uncut in the UK by the BBFC.
Ultimately, if Dans Ma Peau has any flaws it is in de Van's refusal to say anything concrete about Esther's affliction. Everything just sort of, well, happens, and while it's true that, in real life, there are no easy answers, it does mean that the final frames of the film are quite unsatisfying because nothing has been resolved. Holed up in a hotel room having alienated her best friend and her bosses, with her boyfriend oblivious as to where she is, Esther has lost so much blood that she is either dead or close to it, and one can't help but feel a twinge of annoyance when the credits begin to roll and so much remains unexplained. Still, the film should appeal to those who like the idea of what feels like an unholy polygamous marriage between David Cronenberg, Roman Polanski and François Ozon. Like its protagonist, Dans Ma Peau is flawed, but it is an extremely personal and revealing project, and is therefore utterly fascinating. De Van should go far.
Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Dans Ma Peau could probably have looked good had this transfer not been a standards conversion. The source was, probably, the French DVD by Arcadès (judging by the fact that the disc's contents are largely the same), and while it's true that PAL-to-NTSC standards conversions are generally not as bad as NTSC-to-PAL (it's easier to fit 25 frames per second into 30 than it is to fit 30 into 25), I am still baffled as to why these second-rate efforts are allowed to slip through. I will assume that stupidity is not the problem, since it admittedly requires at least some intelligence to author a DVD, but it demonstrates a level of contempt for the viewer that I do not consider acceptable.
Separate Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are included, maintaining the original French audio, with dubs mercifully absent. There's not a whole lot of difference between the two mixes, since the 5.1 track is almost as front-focused as the stereo one, and only a handful of rear channel effects are detectable. This is not necessarily a big problem, and indeed the actual quality of both tracks is faultless, but given how imaginative de Van is in her use of diagetic sound, it's a shame she didn't exploit the opportunities afforded to her by surround sound.
Optional yellow English subtitles are provided for both the film and the commentary. They are large and easy to read, but their size can be a bit off-putting as they often get in the way of the carefully composed photography.
The bonus features kick off with an audio commentary by Marina de Van (in French, with English subtitles). Those looking for anecdotes about the production process and who got up to what behind the camera will be disappointed, as this track is mainly analytical in nature, with de Van explaining various choices and hinting at the significance behind some of the movie's images.
Filmographies are provided for Marina de Van, Thibault de Montalembert, Léa Drucker and Laurent Lucas.
Next up are two of de Van's earlier short films, Alias and Psy-Show. It's immediately clear that they are the work of the same director, since they share a penchant for long takes and brooding close ups of the main characters. Indeed, especially in Alias, her obsessions with the body, mundane conversation and social isolation are already apparent, with Psy-Show hinting at the critiquing of corporate business relations later expanded on in Dans Ma Peau. Sourced from VHS, both are presented in murky non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with burned-in English subtitles - disappointing, but their inclusion is definitely appreciated, especially when compared to the French release, which has a music video instead.
The film's American theatrical trailer and previews for Carnage, Les Destinées, Ran, Russian Ark, Under the Sand and YiYi are also included.
Dans Ma Peau is a thought-provoking, disturbing and unique piece of work from a very personal perspective and as such should be of interest to those bored by this summer's spate of Hollywood blockbusters. While the DVD presentation is a bit of a let-down, the quality of the film itself shines through and the inclusion of two of the director's earlier shorts should not be ignored. Those seeking a better visual presentation for the film itself are advised to go for the French release, however.
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Last updated: 25/06/2018 17:14:47