In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) (2002)

Body horror beautiful.
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In My Skin - Dans Ma Peau

The French, it seems, are adept at putting a philosophical spin on horror: when they do this, they make it all their own, offering distinctly grisly fare which has a questioning side. Martyrs managed - successfully or unsuccessfully, according to your view - to craft a film largely consisting of the torture of young women into an existentialist journey. However, six years before Laughier played with the nature of embodiment and physicality, there was Dans Ma Peau.

Directed by, written and starring the striking Marina de Van, Dans Ma Peau tells the brief story of a young woman called Esther. At first glance, Esther is living an average life with her loving, albeit slightly overbearing boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas) and has a promising, though at times tedious career as an analyst. One night, whilst out at a club with sometime-friend and colleague Sandrine (Léa Drucker) Esther pops outside for some air and, when she's out there, she accidentally gashes her leg. Without realising how nasty the cut is, she returns inside, only noticing that she's bleeding in a beautifully-handled sequence where she notices spots of blood on a pale carpet, and it dawns on her where it's coming from...

It's a key moment. When Esther realises the extent of her injury - which later needs to be stitched - it both compels and repels her, but above all else she is engrossed by it. She leaves the club to get the wound treated, and tells an alarmed doctor that the cut just didn't bother her at the time. This response bothers her boyfriend too, but Esther will not be drawn on the subject: almost immediately, there's a change to her character. Her wound - and her reaction to it - is her own and she won't be drawn into debate. She goes back to work and all seems to be as it was, except Esther is more distracted, can't leave her leg wound alone. Leaving her desk to grab a moment's peace, she returns to the cut, even feeling compelled to make it worse. This done, she seems more grounded and able to work, and stops by Sandrine's desk to confess what she's done. This is one complicated friendship, if it can be called that at all. So, when Esther gets a big promotion which Sandrine had hoped for, a greater distance comes between them. It's not the only elephant in the room when it comes to Esther's work life.

Soon a pattern emerges. Esther has found a way to deal with scrutiny, and as there is lots of that in her work and home life, her behaviour becomes more extreme. During the dinner table scene (and if you watch this film you'll know the one) it also becomes apparent that bloodletting makes Esther feel embodied, when she is otherwise struggling to feel a sense of time, place - anything. Quickly her secret habit escalates, and she begins to cover up for herself whilst retreating in horrifically bloody fashion from the world around her.

I said "horrifically" there, and I meant that: Dans Ma Peau doesn't contain threat from without, or multiple casualties, or gallons of gore, but the bloodshed it does show is unusually affecting because it is filmed in such an intimate way. This minute attention to the human body is very powerful, difficult viewing, and its effect is sustained by the character-driven focus of the film. Esther is a strong character painted effectively in very light strokes from the very outset - a glance, a gesture, a moment of camera time - but throughout, and despite her usually cool demeanour, she feels like a character on the edge. I found myself feeling as engrossed in her character as she was with her own physical state, and examining her, just as the rest of the characters around her do.

The film's fascination with physicality - and with a young woman who feels most alive when she self-harms - uses a style and perspective I've never quite seen anywhere else (although I did get some hints of Cronenberg's Crash and in theme if nothing else, Naked Blood). Blood is given almost reverential treatment here, and this is a deeply sensual and bloody piece of cinema: Esther rejoices in hurting herself, her behaviour displaying sexual overtones as she kisses the wounds on her arm with as much passion as she kisses her partner in a mirroring scene earlier in the film. Something else I noticed was the importance of sound; moving from the sound of a kiss to the (similar) sound of razors peeling skin added to the overall visceral impact of these scenes.

This isn't a flawless movie; for instance, I did find myself wanting to know more about Esther's friendship with Sandrine, which to me was one of the most intriguing features of the plot. Furthermore, the subtle fade-out of the ending will not please everyone. Personally I feel that it works, but you may have to sacrifice your curiosity to accept that you don't need to be given the whole picture to get the whole picture. In the end, in Dans Ma Peau we have been invited to look at Esther's damaged psyche and we guess what lies ahead for her. This is a beautiful, haunting movie where selfhood is explored in unique, unsettling terms.
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