In My Skin (2002)
aka Dans ma peau
Written and Directed by Marina de Van
Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas, Léa Drucker, and Thibault de Montalembert
One of the most ridiculous bits of praise I ever heard about a movie was that a girl in It Follows laid pieces of grass on her leg in a symbolic act of cutting. I liked the movie, but so what? An empty metaphor, unsupported and never addressed is nonsense. Self-harm is a real issue, not something to be winkingly referenced in an attempt to appear deep. Marina de Van understood that it is a frightening and irrational means of control, and she deconstructed herself to explore this in her film In My Skin.
The film centers on Esther (Marina de Van), a young woman undergoing some stressful changes. She’s given a promotion at work that comes with a lot of new responsibility and visibility. Of course, it also comes with a helping of patronization. She needs to exceed expectations to succeed. At the same time her relationship is moving forward, and boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas) wants them to get a perfect place to move into together. She can’t even get support from her best friend Sandrine (Léa Drucker) because jealousy has driven them apart.
One other thing happened to Esther as all of this started. Sandrine had talked her into going to a party instead of finishing a report. Not feeling comfortable, Esther took a walk outside. It was dark, and she fell down amid some new construction. Returning to the party, she’d found Sandrine and finally gotten into the party. She was enjoying herself so much that it took urging from Sandrine to make her leave.
While looking for a bathroom, Esther discovered that her leg had been badly cut by the fall. Everything positive about her night had followed this injury, and as her world closed in on her, Esther saw that bloodletting as the source of her confidence. After making that connection, she tries to recreate that release from her anxieties in increasingly disturbing acts of self-mutilation.
For Esther, the cutting of her skin is a powerful rite, and she explores ways of making that power last — at one point attempting to consume pieces that she’d been carrying around. Mixed in with this is a sort of body dysmorphia, where she stops seeing her skin as being a part of her being. She never felt the initial injury until after she saw it. During a particularly anxious incident, one of Esther’s hands becomes so alien to her that she imagines it being detached from her arm. If you no longer identify with your skin and cutting it brings relief, it’s remarkably easy to go down that path.
Esther’s experience is hyper-condensed, taking her all the way to extreme self-harm within the course of a few days. While other characters express concern and revulsion about her behavior, the movie itself never judges Esther. The camera never shies away from what she’s doing to herself, but it’s less lurid then curious — much as she seems to be herself. Her plot arc is one of triumph; she loses confidence in herself with everything going on, but she discovers a way to feel in control again. What makes it so horrific is that her means of achieving this makes no sense to most of us. She often uses non-sterile tools, and she sometimes cuts deeply, both risking greater harm. Beyond the eerie disconnection from pain, in sacrificing her skin she’s attacking her identity, at least in society’s eyes. She’s defining herself in a way that terrifies us to consider ourselves, a personal ritual of scarring that sets her apart from the mainstream conventions.
In My Skin is an intense psychological film. It sinks you into the life of Esther as she seeks comfort through self-harm. Obviously that’s going to be something that’s hard for some to watch, particularly if they or someone they know has lived with something of the kind. For the rest of us, it’s an immersion into a type of outlet that’s outside of our understanding. Far beyond being a passing wink, this provides a cinematic case study of cutting. It’s dramatized, of course, but nonetheless important for that.
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