In My Skin

France 2002, 95 mins
Director: Marina de Van

The films of the New French Extremity and the accompanying focus on Gaspar Noé examine an important, controversial and highly violent cinema movement. They are not suitable for all.

The film you are about to watch may contain very dark themes, graphic imagery, and scenes of a very upsetting nature including sexual violence and body horror.

In the past few years, French cinema has achieved a reputation for provoking its audiences – not through ideas, but in the blunt aesthetic extremes of excessively bloody and sexual content. The explicit sex in Romance (1999) by Catherine Breillat, the nine-minute rape scene from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and the stylised cannibalism of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) are among the most unsettling subjects and scenes of this emerging tendency. Marina de Van has collaborated as an actress and screenwriter with François Ozon – another exponent of transgressive French cinema – and the graphic way her debut film explores a woman’s relationship with her own body, involving self-harm and auto-cannibalism, places her within this tendency, which James Quandt has called the ‘New French Extreme’.

And yet there’s a sincerity of intention driving this disturbing film that gives it a captivating socio-political relevance and genuine horror that the work of many of de Van’s contemporaries lack. Its almost unwatchably graphic scenes consider the philosophical complexities concerning our relationship with the body. Dismissing the obvious explanations for self-harm and the conditions that give rise to it, In My Skin addresses the question: what are the consequences when your body becomes, even to yourself, purely an object?

An accident at a party triggers the self-harm by the lead character Esther (played by de Van). The randomness of this catalytic event breaks with the common explanations for self-harm, based around low self-esteem, sustained emotional trauma and as a coping mechanism in the angst-ridden teen years. ‘Don’t you like your body?’ her concerned boyfriend asks, but contrived as this may seem, it’s Esther’s seemingly honest response – ‘no, no, it’s nice’ – which breaks with convention. A successful thirtysomething on the verge of promotion, Esther shares a happy and fulfilled private life with Vincent. The party disrupts their contentment; it’s only when she notices the external evidence of her injury (the blood on the carpet) that she becomes aware of her body. Until then, she had felt no pain. Like the dead arm we may sometimes find by our sides in the morning, Esther is disturbed to experience her body as something disassociated from herself, something disconnected or alien; this is the original philosophical rupture that provokes her subsequent actions.

It is not an isolated trauma. Esther’s sense of bodily alienation is mirrored by her social environment: at work she tells a friend how suffocated she feels, she ‘can’t breathe’ after long hours in front of a computer screen. This follows a secret trip to the office storeroom, where she frenetically cuts open the stitches on her leg. Here the act is one of release, the transgression of routine, the attempt to feel alive after the stale, deadening air of the workplace. Here we see how timeless philosophical questions articulate themselves differently according to the social circumstances and perceptions of the time. For Esther, the Parisian professional, her associations with others have very weak social bonds. Falsity orders the relations she has with her colleagues (Sandrine resents Esther’s promotion, her other co-workers are barely introduced to the audience, a flash of forgettable faces). The office is buzzing but with a dull drone, everyone working hard but none fully engaged with their jobs.

In this atomised environment, Esther’s objectifying view of her own body becomes increasingly acute, and she grows obsessed with this sense of physical estrangement. At a restaurant she is unable to concentrate on her colleagues’ discussions, distracted by the carnivorous activities around her: knives slice through steaks, chicken wings are stripped of flesh, forks are stabbed into succulent duck. The sounds of mastication and cutlery grinding on plates are accentuated as the business conversation is drowned out – De Van’s filming technique encourages if not complicity with Esther, at least a certain sympathy by allowing a direct experience of her perceptions. We are also witness to a moment of surrealism as Esther sees her left arm literally detached from her elbow, and as flesh is devoured all around, the absurd vision of this lone arm lying on the table is assimilated, as though another piece of meat, with the steak and drumsticks. Desperately Esther prods at the naughty, unruly limb with her own fork.

Esther’s fetishisation of her own body is further underlined by the way the story unravels, much like a torrid love affair. Esther must lie to others: she gives evasive answers and even crashes her car to conceal the real reasons for her increasingly serious injuries. The scenes of self-devouring are reminiscent of adulterers stealing away with their lovers; Esther too elopes, to the storeroom, to a hotel room. Of course, the act of consummation is impossible; what becomes a sexual desire for penetration is always left unsatisfied.

Events are portrayed with less of the stylised aesthetic of cannibalism used by Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day, whose Tindersticks soundtrack and horribly beautiful photography (by Agnès Godard) made the acts meaninglessly alluring and melancholic. De Van’s animalistic scenes are too long to be anything but sickening. What justifies their repellence is de Van’s very human performance. As she stares hopelessly into the void it is clear how traumatised and confused she is by her own actions.

De Van has not represented self-harm realistically – she errs on the side of fantasy laced with extreme violence and moments of surrealism – but this forces a fresh horror at the phenomenon that is worth preserving. Esther is self-aware enough to realise this horror, and at moments of comparative normality (at a cashpoint, in a pharmacy), she has haunting flashes of recollection that clearly disturb her. Most affecting perhaps is the genuine compassion she has for her body – nothing close to vanity, she really does, simply, ‘like it’, rather pathetically preserving the pieces she removes in toilet paper like milk teeth left under the pillow.

The most horrifying image is perhaps that of Esther locked in an infatuated embrace with herself; the act of love, only possible with two people, is conducted in blood and solitude. Self-harm here is equated with self-estrangement, an attempt to deal with problems at the basest and most primitive level, a retreat back to the flesh – inside the skin and within oneself. It is, as de Van makes clear, a desperate response, the result of an absence of existing social bonds. The crisis, the internal disunity is instead faced alone, despite the world, rather than in relation to it. It is a necessarily doomed strategy for survival.
Emilie Bickerton, Sight & Sound, November 2004

Director: Marina de Van
©: Lazennec & Associés
©/Presented by: Les Productions Lazennec
Presented with the participation of: CNC - Centre national de la cinématographie, Canal+
Presented in association with: Natexis Banques Populaires Images 2
Presented with the support of: Région Île-de-France
Produced with a script grant from the: La Région Centre
Produced with the support of: Fondation Beaumarchais
International Sales: Jacques Le Glou, Mercure Distribution
Produced by: Laurence Farenc
Unit Production Manager: Thierry Muscat
Unit Manager: Serge Desfilles
Production Manager: Laurent Lecêtre
Production Controller: France Dubois
Administration: Pascal Tillou
Location Manager: Benjamin Brunet
Actors’ Director: Marc Adjadj
Associate Actors’ Director: Adrien de Van
1st Assistant Director: Hubert Barbin
2nd Assistant Director: Cyril Duval
Assistant Director (Preparation): Jean-Louis Frémont
Script Supervisor: Karen Waks
Casting Director: Brigitte Moidon
Screenplay: Marina de Van
Dialogue: Marina de Van
Director of Photography: Pierre Barougier
Steadicam Operator: Mathieu Caudroy
Stills Photography: Christophe Henry
Editor: Mike Fromentin
Art Director: Baptiste Glaymann
Set Decorator: Christelle Maisonneuve
Properties: Frank Pitussi
Special Effects Props: Fabien Tuizat
Costumes: Marielle Robaut
Key Make-up Artist: Thierry Lécuyer
Key Special Effects Make-up: Dominique Colladant
Front Titles: Sparx
End Titles: Microfilms
Laboratory: GTC
Digital Grading: Digimage
Digital Laboratory: GTC Numérique
Music Composed/Performed by: E.S.T. – Esbjörn Svensson Trio
Additional Music Composed/Performed by: Rodolphe Vassails, Philippe Lavergne
Music Recordist/Mixer: Stéphane Reichart
Sound Recordist: Jérôme Aghion
Boom Operator: Paulin Sagna
Re-recording Mixer: Cyril Holtz
Supervising Sound Editor: Jérôme Wiciak
Sound Effects: Christophe Bourreau
Sound Effects Recordist: Jean-Paul Hurier
Post-synchronization: Jean-Paul Hurier
Technical Advisers: Fabrice Escot, Antoine Auboiron
Thanks: Gérard Brach, Alain Rocca
Dolby Sound Consultant: Francis Pérreard
Studio: Hydrex Studios

Marina de Van (Esther)
Laurent Lucas (Vincent)
Léa Drucker (Sandrine)
Marc Rioufol (Henri)
François Lamotte (Pierre)
Chantal Baroin, Thierry Vermuth (guests)
Adrien de Van (intern)
Giovanni Portincasa (Modier)
Damien Roussineau, Wilfried Malori (swimmers)
Thomas de Van, Caroline Brunner (serving staff)
Alain Rimoux (pharmacist)
Thibault de Montalembert (Daniel)
Dominique Reymond, Bernard Alane (clients)

France 2002©
95 mins

The screening on Sat 7 May will be introduced by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London

Carne + La Bouche de Jean-Pierre
Sun 1 May 11:50; Thu 12 May 20:45 (+ Q&A with Lucile Hadžihalilovic)
Sun 1 May 18:20; Sat 7 May 20:50
The Ordeal (Calvaire)
Mon 2 May 12:30; Sun 22 May 18:20
Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous)
Mon 2 May 15:10; Tue 10 May 20:55
Sex and Death, but Make It Arthouse
Tue 3 May 18:10
Trouble Every Day
Tue 3 May 20:30 (+ intro by writer and creative Sophie Monks Kaufman); Tue 24 May 20:45
Criminal Lovers (Les Amants criminels)
Wed 4 May 20:50; Sat 14 May 12:00
Pola X
Thu 5 May 20:25; Sat 28 May 17:50
Romance (Romance X)
Fri 6 May 18:00 (+ intro by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London); Tue 17 May 20:45
Philosophical Screens: Romance
Fri 6 May 20:00
In My Skin (Dans ma peau)
Sat 7 May 17:50 (+ intro by Catherine Wheatley, King’s College London); Thu 19 May 20:40
High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance) (Haute Tension)
Mon 9 May 18:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by author Alexandra West); Sat 28 May 12:20
Inside (À l’intérieur)
Sat 14 May 20:50; Thu 26 May 18:20
Them (Ils)
Mon 16 May 20:50; Sun 29 May 18:20
Irreversible (Irréversible) (theatrical version)
Sat 21 May 17:45
Sat 28 May 20:50; Tue 31 May 20:40
Horror à la Française
Free to view on the BFI YouTube channel from 11-31 May
BFI Courses: City Lit at the BFI: New French Extremity
Every Tue from 10-31 May 18:30-20:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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