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Dans ma Peau
cast: Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas, Léa Brucker, and Thibault de Montalembert

writer and director: Marina de Van

97 minutes (18) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to rent on video

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Patrick Hudson
Esther is an up-and-coming researcher and analyst for a Parisian advertising agency, ready to move in with her boyfriend and fully engaged with life. At a party, she accidentally cuts her leg and this triggers an irresistible and inexplicable obsession with self-mutilation.

This is clearly not a horror movie, in the accepted genre sense of the word, and owes more to studies in alienation such as Belle Du Jour or Repulsion than to standard horror fare. Although the mutilation scenes are harrowing, the visceral horror they induce is secondary to the existential horror of Esther's gradual decline.

Marina de Van does a good job of establishing Esther as a sensible and likable woman. She is not presented as neurotic or troubled, and this makes her decline very effective. She has a good relationship with a nice boy, good friends and a good job, there's no suggestion of previous mental illness or abuse in her past that might lead to this hideous obsession, and when confronted she has no explanations. Something just clicks, something that suddenly makes her want to strip off pieces of her own skin.

It is this inexplicability that is the film's chief weakness, however. There are some suggestions that Esther's growing obsession with self-mutilation is an expression of some kind of disaffection with the life she's striving for. There is a long sequence in a restaurant where she is dining with clients, producers of luxury jewellery, while Esther mutilates her arm beneath the table. The arm is first seen separated from her body, like a display mount for a piece of her client's jewellery, and so I wondered if we weren't watching an anti-consumer allegory, but this aspect wasn't maintained.

Perhaps Esther needs to mutilate herself to reconnect it to her body? She also appears to gain some degree of sensual pleasure from the mutilation, and so perhaps it's all about sensation and numbness in modern life? Later, she seeks to preserve pieces of skin she has cut from her body, and so maybe she is attempting to create evidence of her existence outside of her head? None of these explanations quite satisfy, and ultimately I think that de Van doesn't really know the precise reasons for Esther's actions.

Quite possibly it's a red herring to the film's purpose anyway. De Van may well be showing us that we all carry the desire for our own destruction inside us, but the question of why looms so large that it obscures the film's (possible) philosophical purpose.

Dans ma Peau (aka: In My Skin) is efficiently made. The acting and characterisation are good, the dialogue (as expressed through the subtitles) is believable, and the photography clear and straightforward. There is a clever sequence towards the end where de Van uses a split-screen to suggest the transportation that Esther experiences during her self-mutilation, and the scene is also well framed with subtle use of editing and sound. However, it is this transparency that makes us look for clear dramatic explanations of Esther's actions - explanations that aren't there.

The DVD comes with the film's trailer and a commentary from de Van, which goes someway to explaining her purpose, but concentrates more on her intent in individual scenes than the film as a whole. This is an interesting film that will give fans of existential angst much to mull over, but be warned: the mutilation scenes, while not especially explicit, are extremely hard to watch.
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