In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) (2002)

In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) first published by Movie Gazette

Esther (Marina de Van) is a dedicated and successful research analyst, thinking about buying an apartment together with her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas). One night, bored at a party, Esther wanders out into the building site outside, where she trips and falls over. Returning inside a little dazed, she dances for a while with her friend Sandrine (Léa Drucker), banters flirtatiously with a guy, and then heads upstairs to the bathroom – where she discovers that she has been bleeding profusely from a large gash in her leg. Both horrified and fascinated by her dissociation from her own bodily sensations, Esther embarks on a journey to rediscover herself – and what begins as harmless prodding and palpating of her skin and wound soon degenerates into increasingly extreme acts of self-mutilation, to the uncomprehending alarm of Vincent and Sandrine.

The split screen used for the opening sequence of images (of a sterile cityscape) in In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau) sets the scene for a film with detachment and alienation at its divided heart. Marina de Van (co-writer of François Ozon’s Under the Sand and Eight Women) splits herself between the rôles of director (in her debut feature), writer and lead, portraying a woman disconnected from the outside world, her friends and even her own body, in a film which seems destined to divide its viewers – both from each other and from themselves.

“I know you, but to an outsider it looks sick,” Sandrine tells Esther, her words encapsulating the jarring dynamic of In My Skin, which both draws viewers in by focussing on Esther with probing intimacy, but at the same time repels viewers with Esther’s self-destructive gestures, often shown with unapologetic explicitness. Far more shocking, though, than all the blood, wounds and chewing of skin is the way in which Esther’s self-harming is unambiguously eroticised. Giddy with her new-found obsession, Esther loses interest in her partner, has trouble concealing love bites, tries to confide in her jealous best friend, furtively books hotel rooms, carries keepsakes by her breast, and makes ever wilder excuses for her flighty behaviour, so that this could almost be just another French film about illicit adultery and amour fou – except that the ‘other’ with whom Esther is conducting this passionate sadomasochistic affair is her own alienated self.

De Van, whose Esther dominates every scene, delivers a mesmerising performance that holds the whole film together – and amidst all the disturbing intensity there are moments of surreal humour (like Esther’s drunken business dinner with her employers). Its final image of a woman who, despite having burnt all her bridges, is at last comfortable again in her own skin, will leave you too deeply scarred.

Summary: A horrifyingly intimate examination of alienation and self-harm that gets right under the skin.

© Anton Bitel