About 10 minutes into In My Skin, French actor-writer-director Marina de Van’s tour de force of existential and dermatological horror, there’s a screen-filling close-up of a bloodstained gauze bandage around a leg wound, zigzag scars and stitches peeking through. The image—so distressingly large it borders on the abstract, if not the absurd—is an emblematic one for a film that invites the viewer to look anew at the human body, to consider its physical makeup, its susceptibility to injury and decay. The point is that the more intense the scrutiny, the more dizzying the disorientation, even more so if the body in question is your own.
In My Skin‘s inciting event—its equivalent of a vampire’s kiss—occurs at a party one night when Esther (de Van) trips in the backyard and slashes her leg on a piece of metal. She resumes carousing, apparently in negligible pain, unaware of the severity of the injury, until she notices the trail of blood. . . . A primal impulse has been aroused: Even as the original wound is healing, Esther is compelled to reopen it and inflict fresh mutilations. She’s soon sneaking off for furtive sessions of stabbing, gouging, and slicing—all the while somehow holding down a competitive job in market research and a steady relationship with the increasingly alarmed Vincent (Laurent Lucas).
Without deploying reductive backstory or simplistic psychology, this fearless movie—easily the year’s best debut feature—illuminates Esther’s pathology as an extreme response to the mind-body split. Her destructive dislocation arises from perceiving her body as an external object that she also happens to inhabit. (To adapt the Cartesian dictum: She isn’t, therefore she cuts.) No longer satisfied with mere perforation, Esther eventually mounts a panicked, all-out revolt against the opacity of her skin, a layer of dead and dying cells that serves to seal her off from herself. She endeavors to unpeel and taste her body, consume it and preserve it—quasi-cannibalistic episodes, in which she chews off bits of cuticle, culminate in a wrenchingly futile attempt to tan a strip of salvaged epidermis.
If this sounds unwatchable, it sometimes is. But relentless as she is in detailing Esther’s gruesome experiments in transfiguration, de Van realizes too that the situation is ripe for morbid comedy. A running joke has various concerned parties express puzzlement over Esther’s inability to “feel” (it’s fitting that she shares the name of Esther Kahn‘s mulishly benumbed heroine). Her doctor, wondering why she would wait so long to seek treatment for her massive gash, asks, “Are you sure this is your leg?” Her boyfriend’s strident bewilderment and impatient solicitude barely conceal an eagerness to absolve himself of blame; even mid-makeup-sex, he’s asserting his role in her recovery: “When I do this, can you feel it?” (Vincent also gets to voice the pop-psych line—”Don’t you like your body?”—and of course sounds like a total idiot.)
De Van, who co-wrote a few of François Ozon’s films and played the sinister backpacker in his See the Sea, has an arresting screen presence, to say the least—pale, flared-nostriled, and gap-toothed, at once feral and regal, she suggests a gene-splice of P.J. Harvey and Audrey Hepburn. (Indeed, Harvey’s Rid of Me album is the soundtrack In My Skin deserves.) Aptly for a self- directed performance, she emphasizes the narcissism and autoeroticism of Esther’s condition. Which is to say, the cutting scenes are essentially sex scenes—a Cronenbergian implication that de Van drolly reinforces in a sequence that has Esther rushing off to a hotel room, ripping open her pant leg, biting into her lacerations, and reclining in agonized bliss as a spray of blood drenches her face.
In My Skin is all the more horrifying for being largely grounded in a placid, sterile naturalism. The one exception is a small masterpiece of surrealist fantasy that brilliantly literalizes the film’s theme of corporeal estrangement—a nearly 10-minute business-dinner scene in which Esther’s pompously tedious clients discuss the cosmopolitanism of various European cities while she struggles to contain a simmering anxiety attack. As she downs glass after glass of wine, her forearm takes on a life of its own, straying onto her plate repeatedly, and then becomes detached from her body. Poker-faced as ever, Esther calmly screws it back on, and under the table, punishes the delinquent limb with a steak knife.
Esther recoils into herself, and the film unflinchingly follows. De Van again uses close-ups—this time split-screened—for the climactic bout of mutilation. By this point, the images are wholly abstract and disembodied—they evoke a trancelike oblivion, a state of self-immersion so complete that all perspective vanishes. It’s no one’s idea of a happy ending, but there’s a certain romantic logic in operation: In My Skin is a love story between a woman and her own body that concludes with the relationship fully consummated.
“Under the Skin: The first cut is the deepest for a French actor-writer-director” by Dennis Lim