RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: IN MY SKIN [DANS MA PEAU] (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Marina de Van

FEATURING: Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas, Léa Drucker

PLOT: Esther is a nice yuppie girl who enjoys her office job.  She also enjoys dismantling and consuming her own body.  After disfiguring her leg in an accident, Esther develops a necrotic fascination with herself and begins to self-mutilate.  She engages in auto-cannibalism while having hallucinations of limb disassociation.

Still from In my Skin [Dans ma Peau] (2002)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In My Skin is a different kind of horror movie. It plays on those grisly nightmares about things like inexplicably sudden tooth and hair loss, parasitism and other subconscious fears centering on uncontrollable bodily damage. There are no phantoms or monsters in De Van’s film, no outside threat. The horror comes from within as a woman sinks into insanity and demolishes her body.

COMMENTS: In My Skin is a study of morbid preoccupation with the physical nature of the human condition. It explores dissatisfaction with body image, and the finding of a decadent delight in its destruction. The lead character seeks psychological satiation through bodily deconstruction and self-consumption  She tries in vain to attack inexplicable and inexorable anxiety via the demolition of the human vessel.

Esther (De Van) falls on some construction debris in back of a friend’s house and gashes her leg open. Oddly insensitive to the pain, she does not sense the severity of her ghastly injury. She discovers the extent of the damage later, but even then, she goes to a bar before seeking treatment. When she finally does obtain medical assistance, she perversely declines measures to prevent disfigurement. At this point, her psyche undergoes a sinister change.

In My Skin is reminiscent of a Ray Bradbury story entitled “Skeleton” (one of two he wrote with the same title, and bundled together in a short book entitled, Skeletons, published by Subterranean Press in 1945). In the story, a man suddenly becomes preoccupied with and disturbed by his own bones. A quack doctor convinces him that his skeleton is indeed the source of the problem, and that his is not a unique condition. The man begins a gruesome journey into madness. Feeling invaded by his own skeleton, he finally cuts out his own bones. He feasts on the marrow and fashions one of his femurs into a flute.

Like the Bradbury character, Esther becomes similarly self-destructive. The film never offers a clear explanation for the progression of her horrifying degeneration, but Esther derives a twisted fulfillment from disassembling herself.

Esther is at first ambivalent to her leg injury, but soon becomes obsessed with it. She fixates on the cuts on her legs. She is fascinated with their disfiguring nature and with the healing process which she compulsively strives to defeat. Esther stares at, caresses and picks at her wounds. Then she decides to deliberately exacerbate them. She slowly, sardonically slices her damaged leg repeatedly with a jagged shard of metal. She becomes engrossed by her disfigurement, repeatedly and violently abusing herself throughout the film. Interspersed with these gruesome episodes are scenes of her otherwise normal, daily professional and personal life. Her boyfriend and office companion become concerned for her, but are unaware of the full extent of her burgeoning psychosis and self mutilation.

At a business dinner, Esther quietly breaks down at the table. First, she becomes absorbed with the meat on her plate. She impulsively and uncontrollably reaches into it and wads it up several times. It seems as if the arm and hand performing this action are beyond her control. She must grab them with her other hand to stop them. So far, the other diners don’t notice.

Then, in a chilling scene, Esther hallucinates that her arm is completely detached from her body and lying on the restaurant table. It appears neatly severed, though no one else can see it.  Esther gazes at it in horrified fascination. She is having some sort of psychotic delusional episode regarding her limbs, yet she is still more or less in touch with her surroundings. She suffers mental turmoil, becoming increasingly agitated and focused on her arm and her injured leg. She stabs her arm with a fork under the tablecloth. Her tension mounts and finally she can’t restrain herself anymore. She sneaks off to the establishment’s wine cellar and begins to attack herself with a knife and fork.

As Esther’s downward spiral gains momentum, she isolates herself from the world in a hotel room. Then, she engages in an all out orgy of self-mutilation. Not only has she developed an obvious fetish centered around her own living tissue, she seems to be compelled to separate it from herself and then eat it. Perhaps she is trying to rid herself of something else. Excising skin and muscle, then consuming it offers some sort of deliverance.

Esther is the main subject of the film and she is the center of most of the shots. This forces the viewer to inhabit her and to see her delusions from her self-absorbed perspective. Esther takes delight in her twisted descent and seems unbothered by her incapacity for self control. Her actions are appalling and repulsive. One wants desperately for her to stop.

In My Skin creates sheer horror by forcing the viewer to experience these repulsive acts from this first person perspective. Esther is driven to cut and, finally, cannibalize herself, biting into and devouring her own arm, sucking her own blood. She smears her blood all over herself and revels in it as if deriving sexual ecstasy. Then she starts in on her face. Her macabre obsession snowballs into further mutilation and playing with her detached flesh. She cuts off a lengthy swath of her skin and tans it to make a grisly souvenir.

Watching a woman’s profane satiation and release via her self destruction is an excruciatingly difficult endurance contest. The viewer may feel as if he is going to go mad, perhaps as mad as Esther. The scenes of the woman hacking, slicing, scraping, and eating her own flesh are depicted as non-sensationally as if the director was documenting a tourist on a Sunday stroll. The film’s visual footprint is foreboding and darkly claustrophobic. It makes the viewer feel caught in a horrible stifling trap.

In My Skin is a shocking spectacle, but not a blindly gratuitous one. Neither is it a profound art film. While it could have had more complexity and depth, In My Skin is not lacking in characterization or purpose. The film is an examination of morbidity. It is a superficial exploration of a unique psychotic rejection of the normal human condition and a resulting narcissistic obsession with gruesome body modification and perverse self-cannibalism. By avoiding a grandiose quest into the sources of Esther’s anguish, de Van allows In My Skin to pass right to the terror element like scissors through paper. In its simplicity it creates substantial, distilled horror that is more than skin deep.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Poised somewhere in the cut between a kitchen sink docudrama about self-harming and a haemoglobin-heavy horror flick, In My Skin is a decidedly curious film that often feels more like an endurance test than an insightful drama.”–Jamie Russell, BBC (DVD)

One thought on “RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: IN MY SKIN [DANS MA PEAU] (2002)”

  1. There aren’t many horror films directed by woman and Marina de Van is a triple threat here as writer, director and star. I really love this film. Maybe it’s just me but I find the healing process fascinating! I can barely control myself from picking at a scab. ‘In My Skin’ will be making my favorite 25 horror films of the decade. Marina de Van is mesmerizing and it has just the right amount of grotesque and disturbing moments to get the goregirl seal of approval. Great review!

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