the Guilt, None of the Calories"
Imagine, if you will, a horror film where the victims don't die, or even know that they are victims. Imagine a film where the ingenue and the villian are in the same body, fighting for dominance. Imagine a slasher film where the torrents of blood that splash across the screen all come from one single person. Then imagine this film in French, and you've got "In My Skin".
Actress ("See the Sea"), screenwriter ("8 Women", the excellent "Under the Sand"), and casual Francois Ozon collaborator (all the above) Marina de Van takes her first shift at the helm, and the results are bloody, assured, and confounding. In a horror film devoid of violence, music (save for two small scenes), structure, or resolution, de Van turns classic body-horror tropes on their head and addresses the pathology behind self-mutilation head-on. What some people might ask at this point is, "Why would anyone want to address the pathology behind self-mutilation head-on?", and these people would likely walk out of the theatre after the first 15 minutes. Those who are willing to give de Van a little of their time and a mainline to their stomachs are in for the kind of cinematic experience that prompts legitimate publications to use words like "important", "groundbreaking", and "audacious", which in this case translate to the rest of us as "really good".
Marina plays Esther (although this is the kind of film where no one really seems to need a name; they are defined wholly by their relationships to one another), a successful if not mildly creepy-looking executive for some kind of market research or PR firm. She has a doting boyfriend (who looks like a Gallic Clayton Rohner) and a friend at the firm, and lots of nice clothes. One night while at a party, Esther wanders into the backyard and, after tripping several times on discarded machinery, gashes about a pound of flesh out of her leg. Naturally, she goes inside and continues dancing, and only discovers later, after leaving a bloody trail into the bathroom (can you say Rug Doctor?), that she is injured. A trip to the doctor confirms our suspicions -- Esther is somehow disconnected from her own flesh, as evidenced by the fact that she can almost lose a limb and not notice. She is also unconcerned with cosmetic matters -- she refuses skin grafting because it is not medicinally necessary. She gets a shot and goes home to heal.
Let's hold up here. When I find myself describing the plot of a film in a review, it usually means one of two things: either the film was so bad that I can't be bothered to put any additional effort into the review (see "House of the Dead"), or the film is so multilayered and clever that I need to talk out of my ass while I try to piece together how I feel about it. This is actually pretty rare -- especially in the horror genre, where emphasis is not generally on such things as subtext and metaphor and subtlety. Leave it to the French.
I guess I'll approach the film from this angle: it's kind of like "Trouble Every Day" meets "Crash". That help at all? Hmm... how about "Begotten" meets "Shivers" with a bit of "I Stand Alone"? Don't ring a bell? See, the problem -- or brilliance -- here is that de Van has created a definitive body horror picture entirely outside of the boundaries of the genre. We have no transformation scenes, like "Ginger Snaps" or "The Fly". We have no tauntings or "what's happening to me?", as in "Carrie", or "Freddy's Revenge". Heck -- we don't even have an explosion of bestial fury, like "American Werewolf in London" or "The Brood". In this tale, the victim and the perpetrator are the same person -- the only transformation is self-inflicted, and the only obstacle is others finding out. This leads to a very quiet, very somber, very intrusive piece where you can't tell if your urge to turn away is because of the graphic mutilation happening on screen, or because the act is so personal that you don't feel right watching.
Esther lives in a very boring world populated by well-meaning but boring people, including herself. The self-mutilation acts as a wake-up call (a metaphor used literally in the film several times) to her, and she begins to use the sensation of pain as a way of navigating the numbing din of daily professional life (literally -- the hypnotic sound design is impeccable). At an intolerably civilized business dinner? Cut yourself with a steak knife. Can't stand smiling all day at the company picnic? Use some gardening tools to reawaken a fresh wound. For God's sake, feel something, right? Isn't feeling pain better than feeling nothing at all?
As Esther slowly becomes more and more fixated on her body, she begins to dig deeper. Unsatisfied to let the wound simply heal, she reopens it. Still unsatisfied, she makes more, and still more. She kisses her wounds and chews on the broken flesh, holding her stained face like a lover and gazing into the mirror at the sight of herself embracing herself -- fetishizing her body as she destroys it. But her intent is not destructive, it is creative -- the creation of sensations that remind her that she is alive. The gash in the leg is a curse and a blessing, like the taste of forbidden fruit or the forced examination of one's life: the change is irreversible and permanent, and will leave many marks. She attempts to preserve a sheath of skin, and is crushed when it dries up, placing it under her breast like a keepsake or secret; her flesh has become her lover, and the fact that she must destroy her lover in order to enjoy it is irreconcilable.
The film ends (or rather doesn't end) with a series of repeated spiral shots that may confuse some viewers. Again, how can the film be over? We haven't seen the climax! We don't know how things will end! But the film has given us enough clues to gather the meaning of this odd finale: Esther is a clever and driven woman, and the cycle of alienation and destruction will continue. I was ultimately grateful that I wasn't forced to see Esther futher down her spiral, and this kind of graciousness is one of the only things that makes the film even watchable: de Van is not out to disgust us, but to make us look at obsession and alienation in a new, visceral way. Even the fact that she cast and directed herself in the film is telling, and in retrospect, the only way that this film should have been made: much as Esther comes to see her body as something other than herself, fetishizing and objectifying it, de Van as director had to view de Van as actress as another body, a series of lines and movements to capture and make beautiful, an object. It is this commitment to the character and unflinching approach to the subject matter that makes "In My Skin" more than a bloody romp -- it is one of the most important, groundbreaking, and audacious horror films in years.
And it's really good.