By Indiewire | Indiewire November 6, 2003 at 2:0AM
Body of Work; Marina de Van Discusses "In My Skin"
by Steve Erickson
French director Marina de Van's "In My Skin" may be the first slasher film in which the victim and perpetrator are one and the same. With echoes of Georges Franju's "Eyes Without A Face" and J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg's "Crash," she's created a uniquely disturbing work. I must warn viewers: "In My Skin" is not easy viewing. However, it's made with a formal control and intensity that belie the fact that it's de Van's debut.
Like "Crash," "In My Skin" begins with an accident. Wandering around outside a party, Esther (de Van) falls and slices her leg on a tool. Strangely excited, she puts off going to the hospital for a few hours. She becomes fascinated by her own skin, cutting herself compulsively. She ruins a business dinner by taking a fork to her arm under the table. Despite the concern of her boyfriend (Laurent Lucas), her obsession needs to run its course. Will it do so before she kills or permanently injures herself?
Esther's self-mutilation is presented with no sugarcoating. In one particularly excruciating scene, she rubs the tip of a knife over her face for several minutes. In the past few years, French directors like Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noe, and Philippe Grandieux have pushed the boundaries of cinematic provocation. De Van doesn't see "In My Skin" as part of that trend. She denies any intent of making a confrontational film, calling that goal a waste of time. Nor does she see the bodily anxieties it addresses as specific to women.
In her first screen role, de Van played a psychotic backpacker in François Ozon's "See The Sea." She also appeared in his first feature, "Sitcom." However, she attended the French film school FEMIS (where she met Ozon) to study direction. Before "In My Skin," she had directed five shorts. She and Ozon have worked closely together. He says that "when I saw her first short film, I was absolutely thunderstruck. It was as though I had found my feminine double. From that moment, a rich collaboration was born." She went on to co-write "8 Women" and "Under the Sand."
De Van's performance in "In My Skin," naked in every sense of the word, pushes her body to the limit. Few actors would be so willing to put themselves on the line. She had conceived the role for herself. She says, "I always saw myself in this role. I'm pretty sure that if I were forced to use another actress, I wouldn't have wanted to make the film."
"In My Skin" does not address cutting as a social phenomenon: Esther is too individual to come across as a case study. For her, it seems to be a way of connecting with her body on her own terms. In the middle of a boring meeting, cutting herself reminds her that reality exists beyond the corporate world. de Van disavows any intention of social critique in her emphasis on the business milieu. Instead, she thinks "it was important to anchor my character in the real world."
When de Van was eight, she was hit by a car and broke her leg. She recalls being strangely unmoved by the incident, even though part of her crushed bone had been thrown away. Later on, she and her classmates would play games with her scar, sticking needles into areas that had grown numb. Nevertheless, she denies any autobiographical dimension to "In My Skin." She understands why she constantly gets asked that question, but insists "things can be personal without being autobiographical."
Given the difficulties American women face directing even the most innocuous films, it's hard to imagine our country producing a counterpart to "In My Skin." Although de Van was able to make the film she wanted, she had to make some sacrifices. As she relates, "I had to eliminate certain parts of the script and certain things I wanted to do. It was hard to find funding because it's a difficult subject, with an actress who isn't particularly well-known, at a time when economics are rather unfavorable." She remains mum about her cuts, claiming that she can no longer remember her entire original screenplay.
Despite its extremism, "In My Skin" isn't a wallow in cheap nihilism. De Van sees the ending as the culmination of Esther's compulsion. She says "she's become so immersed in herself that it's difficult for her to integrate herself. She's become obsessed with her body as an object." The finale hints that Esther has reached a cathartic peace, if not closure. At last, she can feel at home in her skin.