The good news is that Philip Ridley’s 1990 directorial debut, The Reflecting Skin, is finally available on DVD. For years now, people have been saying, “Suicide Blonde, I can’t believe YOU haven’t seen this movie!” (Why do people never say this to me about normal, mainstream movies? It is a mystery.) Now that I’ve finally seen it, I know why they’ve been saying this to me all these years.
Let me make a brief comparison: If David Lynch had directed a movie adaptation of one of Ray Bradbury’s darker stories, it would be The Reflecting Skin. And if you, like me, think this sounds like a little slice of heaven, then by all means see this movie now.
For those of you needing a little more detail, here goes. It’s the early 1950s, in an isolated corner of the American Midwest, and eight-year-old Seth (Jeremy Cooper) is having a less-than-idyllic childhood. His family owns a decrepit gas station that gets very few customers. His mother is bitter, constantly on the brink of hysterical tears, and abusive to Seth, punishing him harshly for minor infractions (in one very upsetting scene, she forces him to drink water until he’s close to vomiting). His father is a distant, vague man who spends all his time reading pulp magazines and novels. It’s one of these that sets Seth’s imagination in motion, and he starts to imagine that the odd Englishwoman (Lindsay Duncan) who lives nearby is a vampire. (It’s hard to blame Seth for thinking that the woman is not normal, since she claims to be 200 years old, and says her name is Dolphin Blue.) Seth’s brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) is off in the military, stationed somewhere in the Pacific.
This is Seth’s everyday world – running about the beautiful, empty fields with his friends, exploding frogs (don’t ask), and spinning flights of fancy. But when children are abducted and turn up dead, and ugly family secrets come to light, Seth’s dreamlike existence turns nightmarish. Soon Cameron returns, and you could be forgiven for hoping that Aragorn will restore some normalcy to things. But Seth’s brother is quiet and seems to be damaged in several ways by what he’s seen and done in the military. Cameron soon begins an affair with Dolphin, which terrifies Seth as he’s sure Dolphin has vampiric designs on his brother.
There probably isn’t an adult who hasn’t longed for a return to childhood. But Ridley’s astonishing film will make you reconsider this. Granted, few peoples’ childhoods are as messed up as young Seth’s but what Ridley conveys very well is how the world feels to a child when he’s caught up in life situations he has no way of understanding. Conversations are oblique, with hidden meanings clear to adult viewers of the movie but incomprehensible to a child. The surroundings are beautiful, but too vast and isolated to be comforting (Ridley emphasizes this with scenes showing characters alone in vast wheat fields that are fertile but somehow ominous, or against a sky that’s brilliantly, harshly blue) – for all the open space, the surroundings often feel claustrophobic. And situations that could inspire empathy from an adult only add to Seth’s confusion (such as when he sees Cameron and Dolphin making love). As Dolphin says at one point, “Innocence can be hell.”
This theme brings further comparisons to Bradbury, for though Bradbury often wrote about children, the young people in his stories were not always likable innocents (think of the children in “The Veldt” who sacrifice their parents to lions rather than give up their interactive nursery, or the schoolchildren in “Let’s Play Poison” who kill their teacher). Our introduction to Seth is when he and his friends are tormenting a frog; later, he and a friend sneak into Dolphin’s house while she’s away and trash her bedroom. Seth’s innocence often veers into amorality, though the surreal proceedings call into question just what he’s witnessing, what’s imagined, and how much responsibility he bears for the events that unfold.
Ridley’s direction is visually stunning, particularly in the outdoor scenes. His one failing lies in the direction of some of the actors. For the most part performances are fine, occasionally better than fine (Lindsay Duncan is eerie and heartbreaking as the eccentric, lonely Dolphin Blue.) However, some of the supporting performances (in particular the father of Seth’s murdered playmate, and the weird, one-eyed sheriff) are ham-fisted and break the eerie mood of the film, pushing it into the sort of freak-show territory of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
These minor flaws aside, it’s a beautiful if often horrific film that will linger long in your memory.
The bad news is that Echo Bridge’s DVD of the film is pathetic – a fullscreen (does ANYONE watch fullscreen any more?) transfer so soft and jittery I strongly suspect it was done from a VHS tape. It’s to Ridley’s credit that the film looks as gorgeous as it does in spite of the terrible cropping and image. But until Criterion or someone similarly awesome comes to the rescue it will have to do.