Co-conspirator ofFrançois Ozon, Marina de Van has emerged with a very personal directorial debut, In My Skin. She plays a young professional with druggy, vampiric looks who, with everything going well with her career and relationship, becomes... overly engrossed in herself, you might say. A tumble in the metal-strewn backyard of a party results in a gruesome wound, which eventually sets off a surreptitious, serious reconsideration of her relationship to her own flesh.
Yeah, we're in Cronenberg territory here, but the icy, analytic glare of his gaze is replaced by something more loose and intuitive. Also, people in his films usually wittingly or unwittingly launch into the manipulation of their bodies (or those of others) the way some people drop a tab of acid --- to get beyond what they already know.
De Van's character, Esther, discovers that she never knew what she thought she did. "I know you," her friends keep insisting weakly, when they find out she has been cutting herself (which is just the beginning). But as she lapses more and more into dissociation, it is clear she does not.
In the first part of the film's highlight, a brilliant sequence that takes her from a business dinner to a drastic cover-up, she fidgets with her stockings, ripping them. For a moment it's unclear if it's her stockings we're looking at, or just the way her fragile, slipping mind sees the skin of her leg.
This scene also includes other interesting things about the film --- the association of her demented vice with panic attacks, and the exploration of the not unrelated world of the office. It's a bravura scene, where surreal and real elements play off each other in a truly free piece of cinema (by which I mean everything, even the banal conversation, reflects on everything else without having to have a direct, symbolic purpose). This, and the darkly comic scenes that complete the sequence, offer the bulk of what the film has to say. And In My Skin ultimately suffers from this early fulfillment, as well as from a hazy slide into narcissism.
But it's still worth checking out, whether you will be looking away or not. Paradoxically, as the visceral stakes are raised, the tone becomes less shocking and more contemplative. Maybe it's a matter of overkill desensitizing the viewer, although I think the staging also becomes less technically persuasive. In any event, don't worry: It's still certain to shock and appall large segments of the audience. But it's the film's feminist take on work and identity, bound by no agenda save the personal, that will stick with me.
In My Skin has its Rochester premiere on Friday, June 25, at the Dryden Theatre.