“Exploitation cinema” is a term that is often used generically. Yet, exploitation itself is most often used to describe an approach to a topic, rather than the topic itself. So, on the one hand a theme can play out to the whoops and cheers of the exploitation crowd, while at a different time be presented, no less shockingly, to what is sometimes known as the “arthouse” crowd. Sadly, these two sets of fans often find themselves at odds with each other. The arthouse crowd can be dismissive of exploitation films since they can come across as amateur, with a lack of refinement. Exploitation fans are left wondering when the action will start – if a film centers on the creation of a monster, or the investigation of bloody murders, then why are they lingering over lengthy dialog? Of course, there are also those that manage to walk the fine line between these two islands of thought and appreciation. These filmmakers infuse their work with the in-the-face blood, guts and gore that the exploitation crowd hanker for, while at the same time leaving in place enough hints that something else is going on to engage the brain to think about matters beyond what is on the screen. Perhaps one of the most successful at this is David Cronenberg. Cronenberg’s films have varied from time to time, but one common theme is the placement of a character within an environment, and exploring how that environment changes them. This is shown through bodily mutations (Videodrome) or mutilations (Crash). Cronenberg’s films center on the effect of the outside on the inside, of figuring out how a character is changed, or how they embrace change that is forced upon them. However, Cronenberg is not alone in this area, and relative newcomer to this space is a French woman by the name Marina De Van. Ms. Van didn’t come from nowhere. She’s been a long-time collaborator with François Ozon, who is responsible for “Swimming Pool” and the annoyingly excellent “8 Women” (I dislike musicals on principle, but this one was far too engaging to be ignored). This is Van’s first feature length work. Previously she has made some shorts (they appear as extras on the DVD). And it’s quite the premier. One of the first things you have to face when approaching this film is the question, “What is it about?” If you take the film literally, it’s about a woman who is a self-mutilator, a cutter. The woman has a nice job, a lover, and friends. The film plays out as these two different aspects of a personality balance – and become unbalanced. However, taking the film only at this level is likely to lead you into a blind alley. You see, some key elements are never really explained. For instance, why does she start these actions? What precisely happens at the conclusion of the film? Some might see this as a weakness of the work, but in fact, I see it as not really having any part in the larger picture. These topics are not things Ms. Van has chosen to explore at this time. We never know why, only what is. Rather, this is a film about “self”. It’s about asking the question, “Who am I physically”? Put another way, this film is about asking the question, “What do I see when I close my eyes?” What we see, of course, are our thoughts, our dreams. What is the relationship between this physical self, and those dreams and thoughts? And what happens if the self-preservation we all employ gives way to this (ir)rational concept? “In My Skin” is a film about a woman who has been removed from the physical world, and the physical body. She’s not totally detached though, she spends the running time of the film trying to find her connection again – and indeed does by the conclusion. However, that conclusion might well be far too subtle for some viewers, especially those exploitation fans mentioned earlier, who might well be wondering why there isn’t more grue on offer and a nice pat conclusion. Esther (the main character in the film), attends a party with her friends. During this party she finds herself alienated, somehow alone amongst others. So she takes a walk in the yard to clear her head. While in the yard she slips and falls. Regaining her balance, she goes back to the party, dances with people, and finally goes to the bathroom. As she walks across the bathroom, she notices a trail of bloody footprints. More shockingly, they are her own! To this point, she had not noticed at all that she was injured – no pain, no shock. Checking her rather serious injury, she seems almost surprised that she has been hurt this way. So the journey begins. From this point on, there is a detachment between the characters physical sense, and her mental one. Throughout the ordeals in the film, she cries only twice. The first time when she realizes that part of her (patches of skin) have died once cut from her body and stored, and once when, in the climatic scenes, she catches sight of herself in a mirror and once again – finally – makes the connection between the physical and the mental. This is a film about compulsions, but it’s also a film about someone diverging from the norms of the body/mind relationship, without a hint of there being anything wrong. People one would expect to be strong around her, her lover, the friend who got her the job at the office, her boss – none of them can penetrate this new realization. It’s not so much that it comes across as a disease, but rather, that it comes across as an inevitability. She was destined to take this path, and there was nothing she could do about it, literally stumbling upon it without noticing. In this sense, the compulsion – the obsession – becomes a character within the film. It has its own personality, its own scenes, and its own way of expressing itself. The compulsion interacts with other characters, and invades scenes. In one particular case, under extreme stress during a business meeting, Esther starts cutting her arms under the table (this scene is first played out in a wonderfully surreal sense when Esther looks down at the table and see’s her severed arm placed neatly next to her cutlery beside a plate of food). As Esther goes through these things, she is, of course, hiding her actions from others as best she can. This is a further conflict in the film. During lucid moments (though frankly, Esther is never less than lucid), she acts to hide her actions as best she can (by faking car accidents, hiding in basements, wearing long sleeved clothing). She knows others will find it problematic. This isn’t assumed however. In fact, after her first deliberate self-mutilation with a door hinge, she approaches a friend and tells her what she has done. Her friend is repulsed, and this sets the train of denial and subterfuge in action. It’s only after this rejection from a best friend that Esther realizes that her new self is destructive of her physical world. Still, her boyfriend, knowing something has come between them, struggles to hold on as best he can. In one poignant scene we see him cleansing the wounds on her legs, disinfecting them and putting on bandages. It’s like the washing of the feet of Christ, as he tries to accept her as she is, to guide her back to their previous life. In this sense, he is far more desperate than she is. Esther is already lost to her new world, it is he that is hanging on to the old ways for dear life, it is he that needs redemption. In relation to her lover, her new obsession then, is competition. In fact, during several of the scenes of cutting, Esther is clearly in rapture. In effect, she is having sex with this new compulsion, the compulsion is a new lover. This is enhanced by the film technique, where we don’t often see Esther in full relief, we see only body parts. For instance, we might see her cutting a portion of skin from her arm, but never the arm and hand together. It is not until the climax that the full body is shown, and this brings about her largest conflict (the second set of tears). The film also speaks on the topic of the female body as an object. This topic is a common one, and in this case we see it taken to extremes. Esther is a person, a real human being, but everyone sees her differently. To her boyfriend she’s the woman he has sex with and loves, to her boss she’s a good worker, to her best friend she’s professional competition. But what of the real person? Esther is detached from these viewpoints and takes them to extremes. For instance, she literally starts to devour her body. The body she eats is someone else, something else. The pain centers one might expect to find acting in self-defense are not triggered. Esther can have intercourse with this body, to relish it’s destruction as though it were someone else. In effect, she starts seeing herself as others see her, as something else. The latter mutilation scenes operate as some of the most bizarre cinematic masturbation scenes I’ve ever encountered. Above all else, I found “In My Skin” to be inspiring. It’s been a while since I have sat to watch a film with such an open mind, and then found it cluttered with so many thoughts. In the last four days I have watched it three times, and look forward to more visits. There is so much more to be found here. Comparisons to Cronenberg’s work have been made elsewhere, and I can see that connection. However, this is a more personal take on the subject of bodily change. The closest Cronenberg has gotten to treating the topic this personally is in “Spider”, and that was purely a mental exercise (and not very well received). In My Skin is far more visceral in its approach, yet I can’t help wondering if gorehounds attracted to the premise won’t be disappointed. It might make you cringe at times, but the film is far too cerebral to really deliver the shocks (you tend to FEEL shocks, not think about them). The DVD The DVD is excellent. 1.85:1 anamorphic, 5.1 mix. It’s a French film with yellow subtitles. It has a full length audio commentary (in French with subtitles), and has two short films from Ms. Van included along with filmographies. Nothing to complain about here. The soundtrack also deserves a mention, it’s a rather reflective affair from jazz trio The Esbjorn Svensson trio. Melancholy most of the time, it fits the ambiance of the film perfectly. This is not a film with lots of shocks, scares or jolts. Wonderful stuff. Interesting or not, these words were written as my own compulsion. This film simply demands, at least for me, dialog. I found the whole thing mesmerizing and infinitely fascinating. I look forward to visiting it often, and to finding out more about it, and about my thoughts on it, in the future. Like the best of the best, this is a film that breaks out of the mold of its 93 minute running time and infects your brain. There is a lot more going on her than meets the eye.