The Reflecting Skin (1990)

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The Reflecting Skin begins with little Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) carrying a large frog across a yellow field, and, with help from his friends Eben (Codie Lucas) and Kim (Evan Hall), inflating it with a reed and leaving it in the road. When the adult Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), walking past with her shopping, bends over to examine this peculiarly croaking balloon with legs, from his hiding place Seth uses his slingshot to send a stone into the frog, causing it to explode and shower the young woman in blood. 

This will lead Seth to have to go visit and apologise to Dolphin, a friendly if depressed widow whose pallid skin, English provenance and even her very name mark her out as an exotic ‘other’ in this rural American setting. Her house, too, its interiors blue and green (in a film that is otherwise dominated by arid, sickly yellows) and filled with seashells and fishing gear (her late husband’s family were whalers before they turned to farming) is marked out as an oceanic oasis in a dry, landlocked desert. 

‘Nearly 9’ and naturally curious, Seth ought to be drawn to his new friend – but reared in a community of superstitions and prejudices, he is quick to surmise that pale Dolphin is a vampire, like the ones featured in the pulp literature that his dad Luke (Duncan Fraser) reads. Indeed, Seth’s experiences are informed by myths – the stories in his father’s magazines, the tales of angels told by Eben and Kim – making The Reflecting Skin akin to Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) or Guillermo del Toro’s later diptych The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). For these are all films in which adult themes come filtered through an uncomprehending child’s imagination – yet far from being set during the Spanish Civil War, this feature debut from writer/director Philip Ridley (The Passion of Darkly Noon, 1995; Heartless, 2009) takes place in Fifties America, in a field of dreams under the shadow of the recent war and the nuclear age that it has ushered in.

Shot by DP Dick Pope like something from an Andrew Wyeth painting, the film’s prairie landscapes are dominated by sterility, rot, decay, cancer and loss. Luke’s petrol garage, whose gasoline smell is said to infect everything and everyone nearby, is covered in a rust which contrasts with the sleek black Cadillac in which a quartet of young male outsiders pass through on their delinquent prowl. This is a place of despair, where Dolphin has faded into melancholic solitude after her husband hanged himself, where the absence of Seth’s older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) – serving abroad – has driven their mother Ruth (Sheila Moore) mad, and where the disappearance and murder of local children (including Eben and Kim) have destroyed the region’s future. Here desire is sublimated, its illicit products hidden away –  and all that sexual repression has engendered an atmosphere of god-fearing panic. Seth’s rites of passage – his journey towards an understanding of love and death – are hampered by a community that denies and covers up precisely what he needs to know. This omertà makes the uncomprehending and the innocent easy pickings for malevolent predators.

The Reflecting Skin is preoccupied with explosions and their ensuing, toxic fallout. It is not just the opening sequence’s burst frog that sets Seth on his deluded course towards Dolphin, but a character’s burning self-immolation which Seth later sees (“He exploded”, Seth will tell the returned Cameron), and also the atomic tests in the distant Pacific to which Cameron was more than a mere eyewitness. The film’s title refers specifically to the description that Cameron gives to the skin of a child victim of Hiroshima. Cameron’s own exposure to radiation, draining him vampirically of his youthful vitality, is just another symptom of decline and death in America’s heartland. 

The British Ridley brings his outsider’s eye to a portrait of America that is, in all its estranging hyperrealism and ‘magic hour’ sheen, both iconic and oneiric – a dreamy, doomy antidote to nostalgia in which rural naturalism, gothic touches and a constant mood of menace all combine to show what Dolphin designates “the nightmare of childhood” in which “innocence can be hell.” It is a very striking first feature, full of strange, disturbing imagery and off-road ideas.

Summary: Philip Ridley’s striking feature debut observes a young boy’s coming of age in a mannered American gothic

© Anton Bitel