Esther (writer-director Marina de Van) is at a party, when she takes a walk in the garden & falls on a metal shard, tearing her trousers. When she later visits the bathroom she is startled to notice a trail of blood, & rolls up her trousers to discover a severe gash on her leg. Instead of seeking medical attention, she rolls her trousers back down & goes out for some more drinks. After eventually getting the wound stitched up, she returns to work the next day. Before long, she goes to a cupboard where she hacks the stitches out with a piece of metal, before carving new wounds on her thigh. As her professional career starts to really take off, she finds herself more & more susceptible to the urge to rip open her own skin.
Recently, there have been a number of French films that have startled the audience with their sheer graphic violent & sexual nature – from the likes “Soul Contre Tous” to “Trouble Every Day” & “Baise Moi”. Although superficially “Dans Ma Peau” (from regular Francois Ozon collaborator Marina de Van) seems to fit in with this tendency, it stands out from its peers by backing up it’s shocking & sickening imagery with genuine intelligence. It’s an intention to provoke engagement with complex underlying themes & ideas, rather than pure sensation for sensations sake. In fact, in term of onscreen imagery, the film is less graphic than it actually seems, with well-chosen camera angles, sound effects & drips of blood making the audiences imaginations fill in the most gruesome moments. In this way, the audience is fully engaged & almost complicit in the spectacle, whereas showing everything leaves the audience nothing to respond to, keeping them at a distance. Allowing the audience under the skin of the film in this way makes the end result genuinely unsettling & disturbing in a way few of its contemporaries manage.
De Van refuses to offer an easy explanation or motivation for Esther’s actions. Even so, the film builds up a compelling sense of dislocation & alienation that makes the weird almost sexual release of her private pleasure entirely plausible, even if we can’t truly understand it. Key to the film is de Van’s remarkable central performance, full of genuine humane compassion. At times, she is as confused & traumatised by her actions as us, but as she slips further away into disconnected unreality, she is less & less able to control her own actions. When she tries to explain to her work colleague Sandrine (Lea Drucker) & boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas – “Calvaire”), she is met with a mix of pity, confusion & jealousy, but they are entirely unable to begin to comprehend & soon she has to resort to elaborate tricks & lies in order to conceal her actions.
An obvious antecedent for this film is clearly the work of David Cronenberg, & it does indeed share with him an obsession with the fragility of the body & a relentless intelligence, & will likely find favour with fans of that director. Much of the film is shot in a rather muted fashion – a slightly dull reality, which the more stylised & surreal flesh-cutting scenes come as a welcome relief from - although their length & uncomfortable intensity makes it a relief in a decidedly unconventional sense. There is some great use of sound here, notably in the show-stopping dinner sequence where the clatter, chatter & meat-munching sounds of the diners fills the soundtrack with claustrophobic tension as Esther has a startling vision of her arm completely disconnected from her body; another piece of meat on the table. One sequence makes terrific use of split-screen to disorientating effect, whilst possibly the most disturbing image is that of Esther lying with her knee above her face, trousers looking like a hood, as she kisses/gnaws at her knee, blood dripping onto her head. Whilst certainly not a film for everyone, Dans Ma Peau is a vital, confrontational, distressing, emotionally compelling & intelligent piece of cinema which deserves to be seen.
The UK DVD from Tartan features a great anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, which I was hard-pressed to find any fault with. Audio comes in French dts or Dolby 5.1 variants, which is good albeit inevitably with not too much use of surrounds, & optional English subs. Other than a trailer reel & booklet with film notes, the only extra is a feature commentary by writer/director/actress de Van (French with English subs), where she proves to be as intelligent & articulate as you would hope.