Warning: If you, dear reader, merrily belong to the class of horror fans who have absolutely no problem with watching acts of extreme violence perpetrated by one persona against another, but who will recoil whenever an on-screen character elects to take a blade to their own bodies, then this article – and this movie – will not be for you. The 2002 film IN MY SKIN deals with extensive and explicit scenes of horrific body mutilation and is certainly not for the faint of heart.
(I will take this opportunity to acknowledge this odd contradiction within said horror fans. Why is watching a murderer remove the head of a young co-ed acceptable, while a short and not-as-bloody scene of a man driving a needle into his own arm worthy of wincing? I suppose it’s a form of violence we can more explicitly picture in our own lives.)
Marina de Van’s IN MY SKIN is, perhaps, one of the best horror films of the ’00s and yet it is rarely mentioned in conversations about horror movies. It is a film that is simultaneously intriguing and repellant. The violence on display is orgiastic and extreme, and yet disconcertingly relatable and down-to-earth. We may not be able to relate to the lead character Esther’s curious compulsions toward self-mutilation, but we somehow understand her completely. We can relate to the burning and unstoppable need to do something that we know is forbidden and we know to be bad for us. IN MY SKIN is about crossing lines into forbidden territory.
IN MY SKIN follows a young French woman named Esther (de Van herself) who seems to be something of a cipher. She has inscrutable features. She is the kind of person you see in public and then immediately forget about. When we first meet her, Esther is essentially already half-vanished. She goes to her job, she goes to parties, she has friends, her life is stiflingly average, and her personality is shockingly without distinguishing features.
At a nondescript party one evening, Esther wanders into an empty, blackened backyard by herself, stumbles in the dark, and savagely cuts her leg open. She wanders back into the party, not telling anyone about the injury. The following day, she begins to poke at the wound. Something has opened inside of her. Esther’s closed-off consciousness has finally made a connection: She has a physical body. Esther begins to poke at her wound. She begins to cut…
Over the course of the film, Esther engages in more and more extreme forms of self-inflicted violence. She holes up in hotel rooms. She chews off her own skin. She does all of this with a bank expression of biological curiosity. She hides her habit from her friends. This is something that belongs entirely to her. By the end of the film, she will be splattered in her own blood, seeking to hold patches of skin in her own hands.
It should be pointed out that Esther is not a cutter, not in the traditional sense. Cutting – a real-life phenomenon and one that should not be taken lightly – is a symptom of depression. Cutters use pain and self-mutilation to express their own disinterest in their own well-being, and perhaps achieve a small amount of escape in their aggressive indifference. Esther is not depicted as depressed or indifferent. She is an addict. Her behavior is not so much an exploration of the way depression operates, but an analysis of addiction. Esther behaves like an addict. But instead of drugs or sex or gambling, her addictive behavior is a self-damaging, self-taught biology class. Esther has discovered a basic biological truth: We are made of parts. Skin and blood and teeth and bone. And how fascinating to see those parts removed from our bodies.
Yes, this is madness. But in the modern world, where we can feel disconnected from everything, rediscovering your own “part-ness,” as it were, is a catharsis we may be able to understand.
The best scene in IN MY SKIN – and it is a scene worthy of the surrealist tricks of Buñuel – Esther joins a few friends for a dinner at a restaurant. As the conversation spins useless before her, she finds that she cannot stop grabbing and squeezing her entrée with her bare hands. When she looks down at her arm, she finds that it is no longer attached to her body. Her own body is something that is not whole until it is damaged.
No film taps into the basic truths of our own bodies more explicitly – and more disturbingly – than IN MY SKIN. It explores a strange part of our minds that we don’t ever acknowledge: our need to self-inflict. The battle we have between our minds and our bodies.
This sort of material is often tackled by David Cronenberg, of course, and his films frequently address the divide between our physical bodies and our non-physical intellects. But he tends to come at his analyses from the intellect side. He likes to set up towers of cognition and topple them with bodily appetites. IN MY SKIN comes at the issue from the opposite angle. Marina de Van points out that the mind is a malleable, impermanent human characteristic in the modern world, and that our bodies need to be rediscovered. And more pure than pleasure, sex or other epicurean interests – that are painfully ephemeral and stultifyingly bourgeois – is the pain and the physicality itself.
IN MY SKIN is profound, terrifying and really, really hard to watch. It is an exquisite corpse of the finest vintage. It’s time it were rediscovered.