Sunday, July 22, 2012

#137: In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002)

Much like the lead character's dissociation between mind and body, my own mind and body engaged in two completely different experiences while watching Marina de Van's 2002 French film In My Skin. My mind enjoyed and admired de Van's formal skills, dark humor, masterful audience manipulation, and confident construction of story and scenes. My body was a squirmy, stressed, battered ball of tension. A simultaneously enjoyable and unpleasant experience, a viewing of this film is something I hope you'll inflict on yourselves at some point in the near future.
One of the unfortunately small group of women horror directors, de Van also wrote and starred in In My Skin. A blurb on the back of the DVD compares de Van to David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, and while the comparison is somewhat inaccurate, it has some usefulness in getting at the feel and tone of how de Van tells her story. She shares their black humor and clinical attention to detail, while exploring both director's pet subjects: Polanski's connection of paranoia and insanity as end result of successfully filling circumscribed modern societal roles and Cronenberg's fascination with body horror and physical mutation and decay. De Van's film subtly and skillfully understands the anonymously sterile look of the present urban, globalized, corporatized world and the all work/no play generic lifestyle of the upwardly mobile young professional in settings that are, in their own quiet way, just as unsettling as the character's self-mutilation and mental unspooling. Though it's a decade old, this film feels so connected to our immediate present and illustrates how terrifyingly characterless our present has become, a gray slurry of globalized homogeneity, a high-tech bloodless eradication of local culture.
In My Skin is about Esther, a global market researcher on the way up the corporate ladder. She's thinking about buying a house with her live-in boyfriend, an asshole business journalist with a new PR job at a huge bank. They work a lot, talk about going out, rarely go out. Esther and a coworker attend a huge party whose purpose is largely to schmooze for prospective promotions. Esther gets a little overwhelmed and goes outside for a breather. She wanders around the grounds, finds a construction site, and trips and falls on some scrap metal, tearing her overcoat. She wanders back to the party. Later, she goes to the bathroom and notices blood on the floor and is startled to discover she is the source. She hikes up her pantleg and sees that her leg has been severely gashed by the metal. Esther is both disturbed and fascinated by the wound and by the lack of pain she felt after incurring it.
Soon, Esther is reopening the wound and creating others, splitting herself and her body into two distinct and separate entities. The self-mutilation takes on a sexual nature as Esther goes to increasingly desperate lengths to hide it from her boyfriend. She rents hotel rooms where she gazes hungrily at her wounds, saving pieces of her skin as mementos, licking and sucking and chewing on her wounds, and letting the blood drip all over her face and arms and chest. Meanwhile, her star continues to rise at work. These two elements come together in an amazing ten-minute restaurant scene in which Esther, her boss, and two high-powered clients have a smarmy, schmoozy business dinner that goes well for Esther until she notices she has split completely from her left arm, the arm doing its own thing until Esther grabs it and punishes it with a steak knife under the table while attempting to converse with her dinner companions. This scene is almost unbearably tense yet so hilarious and so well constructed that my mouth was hanging open with an idiot grin on my face for its duration.
Self-mutilation is one of that small category of things that make me uncomfortable to watch, but the film is much less overtly violent than it feels. The tension comes from wondering what Esther is going to do rather than what she is doing, and de Van is so incredibly good at fucking with her audience. The film isn't just a skillful piece of manipulation, however. De Van gets at the gnawing, inarticulate paranoia and isolation that seem so connected to this past decade. Something is wrong, but we don't know what it is. This is a dark, unsettling, disturbing film with surprising moments of humor made by a woman who knows what she's doing behind and in front of the camera. I admired the hell out of this movie, and I hope I don't see it again for many years.

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