In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) (2002)
I was completely blindsided by this film directed by and starring frequent Francois Ozon collaborator Marina de Van. In My Skin is the story of Esther, recently promoted at work, and becoming more serious with her partner Vincent (played wonderfully by Lemming and Calvaire's Laurent Lucas). After a mishap at a party where Esther cuts her leg, she slowly begins to become fascinated by the wound, gently prodding and picking at it and ultimately allowing it (and her new found pleasure derived from cutting herself) to consume her entirely.
A fascinating, bold, and at times very tough to watch film, In My Skin's success hinges on one thing - the believability of the lead performance and the empathy it commands. Fortunately, de Van is quietly riveting, and not only is her descent into oblivion believable, it is tragic, horrifying, and, in a very strange way, beautiful. De Van's Esther has the ability to completely and fearlessly let go, to allow her instincts and desires to complete her transformation from nervous stability to physical, emotional, and spiritual self-immolation; this, more so than any kind of physical hurt, is terrifying and awesome. The idea that someone can willingly (or, arguably - and perhaps more frightening - unwillingly) sacrifice themselves to a feeling is at once simple and profound, and frankly, seductive. I mean, we do it on a small scale everyday, give in to our cravings and desires, but not to the extent of obliterating your very existence in order to attain some form of total grace.
The film works on several layers: the first is straight up, Cronenbergian body horror. I consider myself not very easily shocked - I've seen everything from Budd Dwyer's live televised suicide to 2 Girls 1 Cup (don't worry - I'm not linking to them. You're all adults, and those curious know where to seek this stuff out) and pretty much a whole bunch of sick, twisted shit in between that has often left me despising myself for being a part of the same species that can create such things. However, there were moments in In My Skin that truly made me squirm, but not in a sensationalistic sense. See the "violence" here is never gratuitous, and is in fact necessary for the story to play out the way it does. De Van treats the often gruesome visual details of Esther's affliction with a mix of poignancy and the sense that Esther is an stranger in her own skin, and cannot fathom what this alien tissue is. In this way, In My Skin owes a huge debt to the the slow burn psychological nosedive of Polanski's Repulsion, and indeed, Esther and Catherine Deneuve's Carol undergo very similar meltdowns, though Esther's is obviously much more graphic.
Another reading of the film is to see it as an addiction parable. This is an obvious one, and my earlier mention of the horror and odd beauty of someone allowing themselves to be utterly consumed is an idea that is often explored in more literal translations, i.e. the typical "drug movie". However, even that has become a hackneyed film trope and these days drug movies are no longer transgressive and fearless, they are de rigueur. By removing references to drugs/alcohol/sex/texting, de Van reconfigures the viewer's experience. We no longer overlook the addiction itself, because the addiction is the film; the film is the addiction. By making the viewer focus on the ghastly goings-on as an externalized force, he is not allowed to forget, and is constantly being reminded that this is indeed what addiction is, this living nightmare of the soul betraying the body is very literally right in front of our eyes.
Esther uses the mutilation to escape or transcend the banality and growing pressures of her "real" world, and the deeper she crawls inside herself, and becomes more and more detached from the society around her, her externalized stigmata become increasingly brutal, until she finds herself stripping and consuming her own flesh. In order to feel anything, she must destroy herself; an interesting philosophical paradox, and one suggestive of the image and idea of the Ouroboros, a kind of cyclical self-destruction that brings emotional transcendence and renewal.
There is no real resolution or consideration of those left in Esther's wake; in many ways, In My Skin is sort of an anti-slasher, where the violence and hurt is self-inflicted and is limited entirely to one person. The final shot is haunting and elegiac, and will be fused to your retina for awhile, in much the same way that the final moments of Martyrs were. In My Skin is a powerful, provocative, punishing work that has easily jumped into my top five horror films from the last decade. A difficult, emotional, and ultimately very rewarding watch.