Laura Clifford Robin CliffordEsther (writer/director Marina de Van, "See the Sea," cowriter "Under the Sand," "8 Women") initially seems a little reluctant to begin networking for a job, but effortlessly flirts with her girlfriend Sandrine's (Léa Drucker, "Chaos") boss at a party one night. She also has a nasty run-in with some metal outside in the yard, yet oddly, Esther seems unaware that she's ripped her leg open until she notices she's tracking blood in the bathroom. Esther's calm gaze as a doctor sutures her up (he's recommended a skin graft, the injury is so severe) is but the first sign of a fascination with her own outer packaging that becomes full blown psychosis "In My Skin."
This thoroughly disturbing French film goes beyond the cutting behavior seen in "Secretary," "The Piano Teacher" and "Thirteen." "In My Skin," which can be viewed as a metaphor for an inability to deal with modern life, heralds the arrival of a powerful new filmmaker whose unflinching exploration of madness recalls the works of Cronenberg, Polanski's "Repulsion" and Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven."
Esther's boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas, "With A Friend Like Harry") is troubled by the circumstances of her injury and the fact that she flinches from his light touch. Vincent's attention is divided, though, by their financial status and the smell of sell-out around the corporate job he's about to take. Working in Sandrine's office, Esther takes time out in a storeroom to cut herself deeply around her healing wound, then tells her girlfriend what she did. She is also disturbingly condescending towards Sandrine's work and the relationship becomes more strained when, against Sandrine's advice, Esther speaks to their boss and is promoted over her.
Esther impresses clients (Dominique Reymond, "Demonlover" and Bernard Alane, "Read My Lips") and her new boss Daniel (Thilbault de Montalembert, "Stardom") with her research analysis and knowledge of the Middle East, but at a business dinner, Esther begins gulping wine, then observes her disembodied forearm on the table (which she reattaches beneath the tablecloth and proceeds to stab with her knife and fork). The consumption of flesh by her colleagues gives rise to a need to consume her own. Her odd behavior noted, she leaves and checks into a hotel for an orgiastic bout of self-cannibilism that rivals Denis's "Trouble Every Day" for bloodletting. The next day, she fakes a car accident to 'explain' her state to Vincent, but he is obviously suspicious of the pitted flesh on her upper thigh. Her later horrific discovery at an ATM machine (fear the words 'I need money') is the first sign of Esther's own disturbance by her behavior, but Vincent's concern turns to frustrated avoidance when she tells him she is crying over a forgotten PIN number.
Marina de Van, whose Christina Ricci forehead, raven hair and oddly spaced teeth give her the appearance of a Bleeding Edge Goth doll, gradually nudges Esther's behavior into the realm of madness. Outside of her skin, she appears to be in control. She pinches the flesh around her wound and peers into the cut and shows the agony of her first act of self-mutilation. She's aware enough to conceal behavior she knows will appear odd. Her business dinner incident is foreshadowed when she awakens that morning and finds that her arm is asleep, flopping it about like an inanimate object. Her final indulgences of her increasingly extreme behavior are preceded by an inability to cope with the out of doors - lights are too bright, motion too fast - the culmination of a collapse within herself that began with her previous inabilities to deal with her job and modern technology. "In My Skin" could be seen as a fleshy, female companion piece to Laurent Cantet's "Time Out."
Technically, de Van's production is first rate. Director of Photography Pierre Barougier follows Esther with a gliding camera, but the shots remain tight, focusing on her face, to imply most of the nastier action. She employs a split screen in later stages, to both reflect the state of Esther's mind and to partially obscure gruesome pictures. Sound (Jerome Aghion, Jerome Wiciak and Cyril Holtz) suggests stomach-tightening images and sparely used original music by Esbjorn Svensson helps build unease.
Make no bones about it - "In My Skin" is an excruciatingly tough film to sit through, but Marina de Van has created a minor masterpiece.
I have been doing the film critic thing for a long time and have seen thousands of films at the theater. In all that time and with all those films I was only tempted once to walk out on a movie. Well, now I have had this temptation a second time and that is with the hard-to-take debut work by Marina De Van, “In My Skin.”
I should explain myself. It is not that “In My Skin” is a bad film. On the contrary, it is a movie of amazing complexity with an intriguing lead character that explores the depths of the human mind through the eyes and actions of Esther. This exploration begins with the young woman attending a cocktail party. For some unknown reason, she wanders out of the house and into a yard that is a construction site – in the dark. As she strolls through the dangerous detritus in the yard, she stumbles and falls, ripping her pants. As she prepares to leave the party later, Esther uses the ladies room and notices a trail of blood behind her. The tear, it seems, was not just her pants and she sees that her leg is horribly lacerated. But, she goes out for cocktails with friends instead of heading to the hospital right away
This is the point where I started to get the urge to leave the theater as Esther first explores the pleasure pain of her injuries. Soon, this leads to inflicting new gashes on her leg – this is not graphically shown, making it all the more gut wrenching. As the story progresses and Esther falls deeper into madness, her self-abuse takes on epic proportions as she attends an important work dinner – she is newly promoted over her more experienced friend and coworker. As her colleagues discuss marketing methods in Japan, she hallucinates that her left arm has taken a mind of its own. Soon, under the table, she begins to cut herself and feel the divine anguish of her wounds.
About now, my stomach is totally knotted and I am watching “In My Skin” with one eye wincingly closed. Then it starts to get weird as Esther takes the supreme leap from self-mutilation to self-cannibalism. As she munches intently on her extremities, I began to draw into a fetal ball in response to the horror on the screen. But, like a train wreck, you cannot take your eye (my other on was permanently shut at this point) off of “In My Skin.”
First time director Marina de Van has been writing screenplays for a while with credits for “Under the Sand” and “8 Woman.” There were dark qualities in both of those films but nothing that prepared me for the tour-de-force debut by de Van behind the camera.
I don’t think that I have ever reviewed a film like “In My Skin.” On one hand I was disgusted by the story and reacted physically to the on screen violence that Esther inflicts upon her own flesh. I came as close as I ever did to walking out and not coming back. But, there is something to admire in a work like this that made the critic within me decide to sit it out.
The film is an allegory of Esther’s inner fears and doubts, which manifest, ultimately, in her consuming herself in response to her insecurities at the workplace. She is both ambitious and insecure and her accident triggers the conflict that has been there all along. At first, her self-awareness, sparked by her injuries, causes her to examine the wounds, her skin and its folds. She is soon inflicting new wounds and, at this point, crosses a boundary.
De Van’s character study of Esther is the real draw for those with a strong stomach who happen to want to see a story about self-mutilation. There isn’t much beyond this, though, with other characters given little or no shrift. Esther’s boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas), comes across as concerned when he first learns of Esther’s early pleasure pain excursions. But, as she descends into madness and grosser and grosser acts of self-destruction he doesn’t seem to notice or care. This I think is the actor’s fault, though. Lucas gave no depth to his character.
I’m at a quandary. “In My Skin” is not a film that I could possibly recommend from a personal standpoint. I don’t see how someone could be attracted to a movie that, quite literally, turned my stomach. But, I live with a movie nut who just so happens to be a big fan of the macabre, so I know there are people out there to whom the film will hold interest.
I guess I’ll just say that “In My Skin” is “interesting” but not my particular cup of tea and leave it at that. I give it a B-.
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