Under the Skin


“I wanted her to be a virgin in terms of psychological trauma,” says Marina de Van of Esther, the self-mutilating character she plays in her feature directorial debut, In My Skin (currently at the Angelika). “She experiences an injury that she doesn’t feel, and that releases a compulsion in her. That sudden feeling is what I wanted to focus on—the compulsion to comprehend the distancing that she feels from her body.”

Numerous unsqueamish shots of various cutaneous ruptures notwithstanding, the 32-year-old de Van (a frequent co-writer on François Ozon’s films) says she doesn’t consider In My Skin a horror movie. Still, she worked closely with a director of special effects: “I had a definite idea of how each scar would look. It’s not supposed to be a treatise on the development of scars—realism was not as important as the aesthetic effect: the geometry, the color, the overall impression they made.”

Bleak as it is, In My Skin walks an improbable tightrope between psychological drama and existential comedy. “There are comic elements inherent in the problem Esther faces,” says de Van. ” ‘How does my hand differ from a table?’ There’s something comic to that.” There’s humor to be found, too, in the incongruity of the situation: As Esther’s episodes turn grislier, she remains almost absurdly functional—devising elaborate cover-ups, attending high-powered business meetings, discussing renovation plans with her boyfriend. De Van says she wasn’t generalizing about the resilience of self-abusers but merely drawing on personal experience: “I know that when I’ve been under great emotional stress, I’ve always been able to maintain exterior social relationships and job performance, and that only serves to aggravate my anxiety.”

There’s an air of autoerotic ritual to Esther’s obsession—wounds haven’t been this sexualized on-screen since James Spader fucked a gash in Rosanna Arquette’s leg in Crash. However, de Van points out that in Esther’s case, “It’s not an adult sexuality but a more archaic form—the kind experienced by children examining their own bodies. It’s a sexuality that doesn’t involve a partner; it’s not sadomasochistic, but something more infantile and animalistic.” De Van is relentless in pushing Esther’s fascination with her own body to its logical outer limits, and finally to the exclusion of everything else—a retreat evoked in the film’s final third with disorienting use of split screen. “We can never see our whole body up close, only parts of it,” says de Van. “The only way to see it whole is from a distance or in a mirror. The closer we look at any one part, the more we lose the larger picture. By the end of the film, she’s unable to relate to the external world. She’s too immersed in the matter of her body, in the sensation of herself.”

Related Article:

Dennis Lim’s review of In My Skin