In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Body-horror movies generally try to provide some sort of external justification for why the person’s body has suddenly become horrifying, even if it’s intended metaphorically. Take David Cronenberg, for example: Shivers features a gaggle of folks who are infested with parasites; Rabid sees Marilyn Chambers receive an experimental transplant that creates an armpit stinger; The Fly genetically fuses Jeff Goldblum with an insect. Other examples of the genre involve surgical mutilation (American Mary, Tusk) or some other bizarre anatomical deformity (Teeth, Tetsuo: The Iron Man). These films are all spectacularly icky, and some of them—not Tusk—are genuinely great. They maintain a certain distance from the viewer, however, in that nobody realistically has to worry about undergoing a similar experience. Any connection to actual feelings of mixed fascination and repulsion we have regarding our own bodies is strictly symbolic.
Marina De Van’s directorial debut, 2002’s In My Skin, takes a different approach. What’s uniquely unnerving about this little-seen French psychodrama is that the protagonist, Esther (played by De Van), has no particular reason for taking the grotesque actions she eventually does. What happens to her is something that could happen to any of us: While wandering around outside at a party, she accidentally cuts her leg on a piece of sharp metal. It’s an ugly gash, but she doesn’t immediately feel it, only realizing she’s injured when she notices that she’s dripping blood. For some reason, however—De Van is canny enough to avoid simplistic explanations—this wound inspires an overwhelming sense of dissociation, causing Esther to experience her own body, including its (as yet) intact portions, as something foreign and strange. Most of what follows is too gross to show, frankly, but a scene in which Esther struggles to maintain her composure during a business dinner, even as she literally loses her grip, provides something of the flavor.
In the film, this scene continues for several more minutes—I’ve chosen to exit it a bit early, because there’s an abrupt shift from surrealism to self-violence that might bother some folks. (In My Skin is not a movie for the squeamish.) After finding her left arm reattached, Esther begins surreptitiously poking at it with a steak knife, then stabbing it with a fork, cutting herself in multiple places. This behavior is distinct from what’s usually labeled “cutting,” though. Unlike Trent Reznor (or Johnny Cash, if you prefer), Esther isn’t hurting herself today to see if she still feels. Rather, she perceives her left arm as belonging to somebody else… or not belonging to her, at any rate. Hence the hallucination in which the arm is entirely disconnected from her body, lying on the table beside her plate like an oversized piece of cutlery. Even before that happens, she experiences her left hand as an intruder, grabbing food against her will and potentially embarrassing her in front of her colleagues (though nobody ever seems to notice anything).
De Van reinforces this idea in multiple ways, both visual and verbal. Rather than establishing the restaurant and the assembled party, she begins the scene with a tracking shot that travels just above the surface of the table, eventually settling on a view of a man’s left hand seen, distorted, through a bottle of mineral water. A bit later, someone tells a story about an advertisement that was perceived as offensive in Japan due to a particular hand gesture, which was meant to seem elegant but came across as disdainful to the Japanese. The man telling the story uses his left hand to illustrate his point, holding it up like a prop. Meanwhile, Esther never uses her left hand or arm at all throughout the scene’s first few minutes, even as she’s drinking like a fish. This detail is so subtle that it isn’t even directly perceptible on a first viewing, but the unconscious mind recognizes the difference between the natural movements of the others at the table and Esther’s bilateral immobility. There’s just something vaguely off about her, the nature of which only becomes clear once she begins to experience her left hand moving around on its own volition.
While In My Skin is generally sober bordering on grim, this sequence flirts with black comedy, at least until the knife comes out. De Van allows Esther’s colleagues to prattle on about their work—they’re all in the public relations biz—for a remarkably long time before she finally introduces the disembodied arm, though she pointedly gives Esther herself virtually no dialogue. The aforementioned hand-gesture anecdote is thematically relevant, but otherwise it’s just an onslaught of verbiage that means nothing to us, serving as a verbal correlative to the dissociation Esther feels from her own limb. This mundane conversation also goes on for so damn long that it lulls the viewer into a false sense of security—De Van risks boring us so that the moment when Esther runs her right hand down her left arm, finding it neatly severed just below the elbow, will come as a genuine shock. (There’s no prior hallucination in the film.) Most of the scene is composed in medium close-ups, but De Van abruptly cuts to a wider shot of the entire table just after this moment, showing Esther staring down at her big chunk of arm—the giant wristwatch is a nice touch—while the other three continue to animatedly chat, completely oblivious. Her effort to oh-so-casually pull it onto her lap, hoping nobody will notice, gets a laugh from me every time.
At the same time, De Van is introducing a disjuncture here that’s somewhat insidious. Though Esther’s disembodied arm is never explained, or even referred to again, it’s clearly a hallucination on Esther’s part. We know this not only because an arm suddenly detaching itself is nonsensical (assuming the movie isn’t about robots), but because the other people at the table would surely notice such an unusual occurrence. The thing is, though, they don’t notice Esther stabbing and slicing herself, either, in the gorier bit that takes place immediately after the above clip ends. Granted, she’s doing it below the table, but there’s still some doubt, given what we’ve just seen, about whether these incisions are actually happening or are just the further ravings of a deeply confused mind. That ambiguity will persist for the rest of the movie, as Esther’s adventures in creative self-mutilation gradually become more and more extreme. And it’s enhanced by De Van’s decision not to offer any psychological explanation whatsoever for her protagonist’s obsession with her own flesh, and by the previous decision to have the source of her obsession be an ordinary wound rather than some sort of genetic mutation or weird infestation. What happens to Esther is just normal enough to be deeply unsettling—body horror about a body we share.