Grappling at the moment with the fact that I just finished watching Marina de Van's In My Skin, a film recommended by a friend who knows of my weakness for flashy/trashy contemporary French film. He described it to me as seeming like it was made "maybe if Cronenberg were French, and a woman." Which means, fun with body parts!
I'm not the most overly squeamish person on earth, well, at least when it comes to watching disturbing movies. I'm willing to put up with a lot. And I would have been willing to put up with all the lead character's self-mutilation if I felt like it added up to anything. This movie makes for an interesting companion piece to Demonlover, which I watched last week, in that they're two highly disturbing looks into what it means to be a powerful contemporary working woman. (In her dispatch from the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, Michelle Carey speaks of the two films almost in the same breath at Senses of Cinema online.) And the outlook is pretty depressing. Seems like being insanely attractive, professionally successful, sexually confident, and financially secure is a one-way ticket to self-destruction, both emotionally and physically. Of course, there's something to be said about the way these films are trying to tap into the existential despair that often comes with the modern world's perception of "having it all," the feeling that there's still something missing and that perhaps the only way to assuage the sense of guilt over feeling so empty is to embrace utter annihilation.
Watching In My Skin, I found myself wishing the movie would just end already, not because I was grossed out, but just because I was bored with the fairly one-dimensional characters and constricted storyline. But. At the same time, it was making a whole lot of emotional sense. There were a few moments (when she leaves her business dinner and escapes to a hotel across the street to be alone with herself; when she looks directly into the camera near the end of the film, covered in blood, but one tear trickles down her cheek) that were shockingly powerful in the way they resonated with me in some completely unexpected ways. "Yeah, I get what that's about. That's a really weird way of literalizing that vague emotion, but I know I've certainly felt that way before." I mean, I'm pretty notorious for changing my hair cut or color when I'm depressed or angry about something, and there are often times I wash my face or brush my teeth a little too vigorously or cut my fingernails a little too short in an effort to push back some untidy emotions that I haven't been able to process. These admissions sound almost comically innocuous in comparison with the really intense stuff going on in this film (and the really intense stuff I know people sometimes feel compelled to do to themselves in real life), but I'm just saying that I see what de Van was after in the construction of this character and the trajectory of the narrative. But--and I know this sounds weird to say of a film that's so over the top in its graphic depictions of body horror--it didn't go far enough. It didn't go beyond a kind of pat theme of "we walk around life so numb, we have to do anything to make ourselves feel; when we're not being affirmed by the co-workers, lovers, friends in our lives the way we want them to affirm us, we have to create a relationship with our own physical selves to soothe that ache." Yeah, that's true. But so what?
The movie snapped into a bit better focus for me after I started reading some reviews and discovered that de Van is a frequent collaborator with Francois Ozon. I've only ever seen Swimming Pool (which she didn't have a hand in), but based on my memory of that film and the little I've read about the rest of his oeuvre, I better understood the aesthetic she was working with here. There's this perverse glorification of the spectrums of female weakness (the polar opposites of sexuality in Swimming Pool, being an intellectual powerhouse possessed of a literally crumbling body in In My Skin) that I find myself kind of bored with. And maybe I'm being overly simplistic in my interpretation of these films here, but eh. I respond to what I respond to.
The most enjoyable aspect of the movie for me by far was the music. Apparently much of the soundtrack came from a Swedish trio called E.S.T. (Esbjorn Svensson Trio), which felt immediately reminiscent of the stuff Brad Mehldau does with his amazing jazz piano covers of Radiohead tunes. The root menu of the DVD loops a section of the song "Serenade for the Renegade" off the album Strange Place for Snow. It's sexy and hypnotic and icy and solipsistic. And, forgive me for speaking in film reviewer-ese here, but that's the perfect sound for what In My Skin so clearly wanted to be.