31 Days of Horror: ‘In My Skin’ distressing but frustratingly unimaginative

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Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin)
Written by Marina de Van
Directed by Marina de Van
France, 2002

Though his niche is most frequently described as “body horror,” the self-annihilating characters who populate David Cronenberg’s films tend to be driven, at least at first, by external stimuli, usually of the pseudo-scientific sort; the faulty teleporter in The Fly; the pirate signals of Videodrome, the mutant computer game of eXistenZ, the epidemic disease in Rabid, etc. Sure, the more horrific aspects tend to manifest themselves on, in or through the physical body of these films’ protagonists, but the evil began from without. That’s not the case in In My Skin, a true body horror film in content if not in form; in fact, in tone and tempo, it’s essentially a chamber drama – only one that it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than hardcore genre buffs getting through thanks to the sbject matter and graphic intensity.

Esther (Marina de Van, who also wrote and directed) has a problem. It’s not her job; she works in marketing, she’s good at it, and she’s well-liked. It’s not her lovelife; her partner, Vincent (Laurent Lucas), is agreeable, supportive, and gainfully smployed. No, her problem is that, following an accident in which sherather severly cuts up one of her legs, she realizes that her body does not seem to feel or process pain in the fashion she might have expected. This begins to render her curious about just how much her body won’t enable her to feel. Which leads to further self-experimentation. Needless to say, the squeamish need not apply.

de Van has stated that the film is semi-autobiographical, a literalized exploration of feelings she’s experienced since a childhood accident. As one might expect from that impetus, In My Skin is a portrait of a deeply self-obsessed individual, in every possible fashion. Esther, or some part of her increasingly damaged body, occupies every frame. The film’s deliberately flat, stubbornly realistic style makes it feel as though de Van set out to actively avoid any horror-ish beats, despite the obviously distressing nature of the material, making for uncomfortable viewing on every level. Stripped of narrative urgency, classical antagonists, or even meaningful supporting characters of any kind, In My Skin takes great care to immerse us in Esther’s peculiar, and ever-more-detached, state of mind – and nothing more.

That sense of limitation-by-design has a price. Unlike with Cronenberg’s films, it’s a real struggle to glean any sociological or anthropological insight from de Van’s film; indeed, one gets the sense that de Van got more out of making and starring in the film than any spectator possibly could. The unaffected style (from which the only digressions are a needless split-screen sequence and a disquieting daydream involving a prosthetic hand) makes it impossible to re-interpret the material in some wider context. de Van’s previous work was as the screenwriter for Francois Ozon’s comedy 8 Women; she doesn’t engage with the possibilities of horror filmmaking as directly as fellow French genre interloper Claire Denis did with her own arthouse-horror crossover film, Trouble Every Day, the previous year. So while In My Skin is provocative and deeply distressing, it feels naggingly skin-deep,

Simon Howell

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