Marina de Van makes her feature-length directorial debut with the Cronenberg-esque Dans ma peau (In My Skin). In it, narcissistic Esther (De Van) cuts her leg accidentally at a party, then begins to find strange solace in carving up and eating her own flesh. That sounds like a recipe for a singularly revolting moviegoing experience, but it’s really quite tame, as De Van—best known for her recent collaborations with François Ozon (she has appeared in several of his films and cowrote 2000’s Under the Sand and 2002’s 8 Women with him)—is more interested in cerebral rather than visceral shocks.
While Esther’s self-mutilation is surely disturbing, the film treats it less as self-violation than an intense, especially messy form of masturbation, a private pleasure we end up feeling no right to question. It is easy to imagine how scenes showing her cutting might have been shot to increase the gore factor, to shock and nauseate audiences with close-ups of festering gashes and mangled flesh. But that would have been too easy. By making this maiming a softly lit and titillating spectacle, De Van has found a more provocative way to disturb us. Rather than focusing on the wounds, the film locks in on Esther’s face, which registers, by turns, drugged stupor, deranged horror, and orgasmic frenzy.
When we see blood, she’s lovingly smearing it all over herself; when we see her gnawing at her arm, it’s a precise evocation of the hungry kisses she previously gave her boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas). As she tries to reach ever more remote patches of flesh to nibble on, Esther folds in on herself, as if trying to crawl inside her own womb. Indeed, despite, or because of, the abject mess she has made of herself, the insularity of these scenes makes it seem she has withdrawn to a place of womb-like comfort, one where pain, which Esther never exhibits, doesn’t exist. Instead of looking monstrous, Esther looks strangely seductive, lost in an inconceivable, weirdly enviable jouissance. Through her tautological self-nourishment and the savagery with which she surrenders to her impulses, she is literally consumed by her own desire, obliterating in the process those oppositions (mind/body, self/other, male/female, pain/pleasure) that entry into the world, for better or for worse, foists upon us.
In My Skin refuses to explain Esther’s behavior. In fact, the boyfriend seems designed primarily to deride the pursuit of simple explanations. Passive-aggressive, jealous, and repeatedly intrusive, Vincent can’t accept that Esther has a life apart from him. In another movie, his efforts to understand her might seem “sensitive,” but this one portrays them as invasive attempts to control her. As Vincent repeatedly asks how her behavior is supposed to make him feel, we begin to accept Esther’s refusal to answer as an appropriate defense strategy. The more we recognize his relentless interrogation as “rational,” the more we appreciate Esther’s withdrawal into the irrational.
Just as Vincent doesn’t respect Esther’s privacy, neither do her bosses at the public relations firm she works for respect her off-hours, expecting from her a boundless productivity. One of the byproducts of her initial accident, which occurs at a party she attends only to network, is a sudden energy burst that keeps her up all night, writing the market analyses her bosses expect. Her lucidity and objectivity at such moments are linked to her uncanny detachment from herself, so that when she’s confronted with more deadlines, her response—sneaking into a storage closet and cutting herself with the office supplies—seems strangely appropriate.
Esther finds adhering to basic business etiquette too difficult. Her bosses’ expectations are at once reasonable and utterly absurd, further justifying her flight into the irrational. At a business dinner, Esther’s anxiety over making small talk begins to overwhelm her. Feeling scrutinized, she imagines her arm has become completely uncontrollable, at first merely amputated, then animated by some alien force, like Bruce Campbell’s hand in Evil Dead 2. At the dinner table, she makes tentative jabs at her arm with her knife; but soon Esther retires to a hotel across the street for a cannibalistic orgy. And indeed, after the tense dinner sequence, this comes as relief, even for viewers.
By the end of the film, Esther has removed herself entirely from the outside world, committing herself to her mutilations, which become increasingly clinical as she takes documentary photographs and draws surveying “maps” on her skin with a marker akin to the painted lines on concrete at a roadwork site. She makes of herself a kind of construction project, echoing a doctor’s remark, made as he’s stitching one of her first wounds: “You and building sites don’t mix.” Esther’s wariness of rationality, of linear progress in her career or love life, finds expression in her clumsiness around construction areas and her abuse of tools (all De Van needs to do is show us a car trunk full of screwdrivers and we gasp at the possibilities).
Despite her diligent research, her body project (akin to any more familiar “renovation,” like dieting or plastic surgery) serves no practical function. Even as her actions appear more and more pointless, she seems possessed of an increasing sense of liberty. De Van devotes what seems an inordinate amount of time to Esther’s effort to tan a detached piece of her skin like leather. Her focus on fashioning this useless memento suggests her body project can result in some tangible object outside of herself. But Esther here achieves not a construction per se, but a different kind of permanence, an ineffable stasis. She presses the tanned piece of skin back against her body, creating a self-referential loop; we see the destruction required to possess a piece of herself, to achieve some kind of integration without subjecting herself to the demands of Vincent and her bosses.
The film is eventually inconclusive, and as such, mimics Esther’s own paradoxical choices. It scuttles narrative closure for a more primal unity, an extreme self-referentiality. Or to put it another way, the film turns as uselessly solipsistic as its protagonist, defying our interpretation and comprehension. Just as Esther disappears into herself before our eyes, so does the film itself slip away. That this abandonment feels so unsatisfying testifies to the moral power of what precedes it.