In her big-budget thriller starring Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, writer-director Marina de Van continues her career-long exploration of female identity, body image issues, and dual personalities.
Acclaimed biographer and historian Jeanne (Sophie Marceau), a married mother of two living in Paris, suffers from midlife malaise, and has just composed a novel in an attempt to write herself out of her funk. The day her editor pans the book for its lack of emotion and depth, the distraught Jeanne begins seeing things. A strange girl repeatedly appears; objects in her apartment aren’t where they’re supposed to be; family photos reflect a past she doesn’t remember; and most disturbing of all, the faces of her husband, children, and even Jeanne herself begin to change.
The uncanny phenomena multiply until Jeanne, now possessed of an entirely different body (and played by Monica Bellucci), follows clues to Italy, where she learns the secret of her forgotten childhood, and the cause of her hallucinations.
Don’t Look Back has all the melodrama and epic sweep of a 19th-century opera. Indeed, a key revelatory scene at Jeanne’s mother’s home exposes a 30-year-old Paris Opera ticket to La Traviata in a drawer full of old photos. Reference to the Verdi favorite about a courtesan separated from her lover because his father fears the liaison will ruin his daughter’s engagement invites a comparison of the opera to Don’t Look Back. The exercise neatly glosses the film as well as de Van’s artistic practice.
De Van offers a modern, feminist version of the plight of the fallen woman, who does not die of consumption as in Verdi, but instead survives to suffer, along with her family, the consequences of cultural and familial sanctions for her scandalous behavior (in this case infidelity). Unlike Verdi, de Van gives her tenors no arias; Don’t Look Back subordinates all of its male characters, in order to play out a multi-generational, international tale from the perspective of daughters and mothers.
For all of its operatic excess, Don’t Look Back ultimately concerns the interior life. A tour-de-force of camera work, editing, and set decoration, the film’s first scene establishes the essentially fragmentary nature of the self. Jeanne bathes, brushes her teeth and hair, and applies make-up in a series of shots focused on various parts of her body, seen in frame or in the many reflective surfaces in her apartment’s vertigo-inducing bathroom, including mirrors randomly inset among the wall tile, shiny bath fixtures, and a mirror above the sink bordered with family photographs. So stingy is the camera with establishing shots, that the first glimpse we have of Jeanne’s entire face is in one of the snapshots.
The scene—for that matter, the entire film, which is filled with mirrors and reflections—screams for a Lacanian analysis, which I’ll mercifully spare us. Suffice it to say that reflections, as well as representations of Jeanne in photographs and home video footage, underscore her alienation from herself, an affliction that climaxes when her body morphs into a stranger’s. Jeanne has to assemble a coherent identity every day, the bathroom scene teaches, and while she undergoes an integration of sorts at the end of the film, Don’t Look Back posits alienation as the essential characteristic of the self.
This theme has long preoccupied de Van, who explored it in her harrowing 2002 feature debut, In My Skin, for which she served as writer, director, and star (it’s the Rocky of French feminist self-mutilation films). After an accident that injures her leg, Esther (de Van) falls into a spiral of cutting that begins with her wounds, then extends to her face and arm, which at one point turns into a mannequin limb disconnected from her body. Though Jeanne never cuts herself, scars and lesions appear on her skin, and this marking, as well as the violence of some of the transformation scenes, present women’s bodies, just as the earlier film does, as literally and figuratively contested spaces.
Where In My Skin uses old-fashioned make-up artistry to depict Esther’s cutting, biting, and finally even embalming her flesh, Don’t Look Back relies on computer graphics to show Jeanne’s transformation. Celebrated scenes that give Sophie Marceau Monica Bellucci’s eyes or show Marceau’s face roiling as Bellucci’s emerges effectively render Jeanne’s psychic fragmentation, but scenes that utilize editing and acting alone better capture the uncanny nature of the troubled woman’s fluid identity. A scene late in the film where Jeanne pulls on a new identity along with her clothes generates better chills than state-of-the-art morphing software.
At times the morphing and actress swapping becomes distracting, even gimmicky, and works to the detriment of character development. In the scene where the opera ticket surfaces, Jeanne confides to her mother that she doesn’t love her children, that she’s a “bad mother”. It’s a powerful confession and an affecting scene. The conclusion resonates with this assertion, but mostly the thread disappears. From another perspective, however, it could be argued that all the shape-shifting works as misdirection that enables de Van to include such a confession—rare in European mainstream cinema, and virtually unknown in American big-budget films—in the first place. Thus, while Don’t Look Back is at times flawed, de Van has managed to uphold her artistic vision even as she has adapted it to mainstream cinema.
Other than the trailer, there are no extras on the Don’t Look Back DVD. The DVD release of In My Skin, it should be noted, includes two of de Van’s early shorts. One of them, Alias, from 1998, also concerns double identity, and is worth a look, in its own right and as an antecedent for Don’t Look Back.