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Skin Crawl

A graphic new French film may not be horror, but it’s certainly horrifying



In My Skin

Dir.: Marina de Van

NR, 93 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

The heroine of In My Skin, the hellacious first feature by French writer-director Marina de Van, sneaks off to the bathroom at a party and notices she’s trailing footprints in blood. Seeing the gash in her leg, caused by falling on a piece of metal, doesn’t scare her. What scares the hell out of her is that she didn’t feel the cut. How could someone get so detached from her own body, from her own nerve endings? It’s as if someone just cut away a piece of her dress. So she goes home, peels away the bandage, and prepares to make herself feel something.

Technically, In My Skin isn’t a horror movie. In a perverse way, it’s an exploration film—a Fantastic Voyage that starts on the outside and burrows its way in. But total freakin’ gut-wrenching horror is the likely response, along with a queasy admiration for de Van’s refusal to blink. Like all good horror movies, In My Skin begins with a kernel of morbid universal curiosity. Anyone who’s ever single-mindedly picked at a scab or scratched themselves bloody in the thrall of poison ivy will recognize, at least initially, the mix of sick sensations de Van evokes. You wonder how your body could do that to you—make you that oblivious to your well-being, just because the itch getting clawed is so intense. As in David Cronenberg’s body-horror fever dreams, the death match of mind and flesh is a potent metaphor for any number of obsessions or addictions.

In My Skin, however, is all particulars. It’s not about self-mutilation as an issue, or even about the disorder that causes as many as 2 million teenage girls every year to cut themselves in secret, as a way of exorcising pain or releasing tension. It’s about one specific woman, a market researcher named Esther (played by de Van), who finds that either despite or because of her placid corporate job and her sullen fiancé (Laurent Lucas), her body has become a dumb, numb coat of meat. So she starts digging into that sausage casing with anything at hand—splinters, metal, teeth—to see if there’s anything underneath that feels.

At this point, the logical question should be raised: Why the hell would anyone want to see this? James Quandt asked as much in a recent Artforum article, where he lumped together a disparate group of bloody, transgressive French films—including Irréversible, Baise-Moi, Trouble Every Day and this one—under the heading of the “New French Extremity.” Quandt all but accused the directors of selling out to meet the “porno chic” demands of the marketplace, souping up their movies with hardcore sex and gore and cannibalism to grab U.S. distributors.

Leaving aside the matter of how “commercial” these movies really are—their combined U.S. grosses couldn’t match the opening weekend of even a major-studio dud—I wish Quandt had looked a little more at their odd confluence. What connects these movies is a sustained shriek against emotional numbness. They’re terrified of looking at rape, mutilation and savagery and feeling nothing. I suspect that’s what has fueled their modest notoriety in America, where they’re an antidote to the zipless, consequence-free mayhem that dominates our own pop culture. Say what you will about the movies Quandt cites, their brutalities don’t occur in a vacuum. They leave marks. With its corporate disconnection and severe alienation, In My Skin seems as engaged with today’s psycho world as Night of the Living Dead was with corpse-strewn 1968.

But that’s only the smallest part of what makes In My Skin worth seeing. For one thing, de Van’s screen presence is as commanding and discomfortingly erotic as her direction. With her high forehead and backslash eyebrows, she suggests a cross between a fashionista vampire and Snow White’s Wicked Queen, but her fearless show of naked desperation makes Esther anything but a cartoon. And for an actor turned filmmaker, she has an unusually striking and precise visual sense. She favors (ulp!) close-ups of skin-crawling physicality. She makes bold use of slashing verticals, which culminates in a split-screen self-surgery sequence that’s a double-dog dare of audience endurance.

So, again, why endure it? For the same reason Esther cuts into her wounds. For the same reason we torment ourselves with movies that churn up our secret fears and desires—ones that we might never act upon, but somehow feel purged for seeing enacted. For the same reason we don’t look away even when our rational minds tell us we should. To feel something. And, having felt it, to see the world a little differently. A little...sharper.

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