FanTasia 2003! Moriarty Calls IN MY SKIN 'Best Of The Fest And The Year So Far!'
Published at: Sept. 13, 2003, 6:40 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Marina De Van has made a film of lasting power, an unsettling ode to the ways in which we punish ourselves, and it’s a shame that no one has picked it up for a real run here in the US. That means genre fans are going to miss an opportunity to see one of the most intelligent and transgressive new voices in horror in recent memory. Imagine if DEAD RINGERS had been told from the point of view of one of the patients of the Mantle twins. It’s rare enough that we get strong women directors who are given room to make personal projects. But a horror film that is written and directed by the star, and which manages to push the envelope in a new emotional direction? That’s cause to celebrate.
She was a co-writer on 8 WOMEN and UNDER THE SAND, two of the films that helped make the reputation of Francois Ozon, who scored an art house hit this summer in the US with SWIMMING POOL. Focus Films did a good job of selling the key images from that film, like Ludivine Sagnier in a bathing suit, and I was hoping that the film’s minor success might help piggyback this picture into a wider release of sorts. This is difficult material, though, and maybe it’s not meant for any sort of wide release. It certainly doesn’t offer the sorts of easy answers one finds on every screen of the multiplex, and despite the fact that it obviously affected every member of the audience when I saw the film in Montreal, it didn’t connect for many of them as a whole piece of work. It will frustrate some viewers, no doubt, but I find that even now, almost two months after I saw the film, I am haunted by it, shaken by the brutal, hallucinatory honesty of the thing.
Esther (de Van) works in PR, freelancing wherever and whenever she can. She’s trying to find a permanent job somewhere, and she’s in constant, subtle competition with her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas), who also struggles to find something permanent. When he gets a fairly amazing offer from a major bank, it really turns up the pressure for her. She goes to a party with Sandrine (Lea Drucker, particularly effective here), a girl she knew in college. She makes sure she gets introduced to Daniel (Thibault de Montalembert), Sandrine’s boss, and then actually manages to talk her way into some work.
Once she’s got that out of the way, Esther goes outside for a little fresh air. She just wants to take a break from all the social pressure of the situation, and as she’s walking around the large backyard, which is under renovation, she takes a nasty fall. It’s dark out, though, and she’s not in any pain, so she just heads back inside. It’s only later, when she creeps away from the party to use the upstairs bathroom, that she realizes she’s gashed her entire leg open, and she’s bleeding. A lot. Once she’s looked at it, the pain sets in, and she gets a little hysterical. Even then, though, she’s slow to do anything about it. She’s more fascinated than anything. Her boyfriend is freaked out about it and seems far more concerned about it than she does. Doesn’t really matter. There’s not a lot of time to dwell on it. She’s starting her new job. He’s starting his new job. And for a little while, everything’s going great. She impresses her boss so much that she gets offered a full-time position, leapfrogging right past Sandrine, driving a wedge between the two of them. Esther and Vincent start talking about buying a house. Pressure mounts from every direction, until one late night at the office, rewriting something under deadline, Esther begins to pick at the wound in her leg. Then she begins to really work at it. And then she cuts herself, adding a fresh wound to complement the original.
For the record, during the screening I went to, two girls left the theater to throw up in the lobby, and one guy stood up and passed out, face first. I’ve heard people talk about extreme reactions to films, but I think this may be one of the few screenings I’ve ever been to where I actually saw those types of extremes take place.
Just like that, the film settles into the single best depiction of what it feels like to wrestle with madness since Lodge Kerrigan’s CLEAN, SHAVEN. Put simply, Esther begins to hurt herself. All the plot I just described is from the first third of the film. What happens from that point is both subtle and explosive in turn. De Van’s work in the film is practically performance art. As befits a serious picture about a woman wrestling with body issues and self-loathing and a need to feel something, anything, even if it’s pain, she’s right out there on the edge. It’s fearless work. Honest. What makes Esther’s story so absorbing is the extreme, but what makes the film stick is the universal truth about how we punish ourselves and seek release from pressure and pain in this life.
Confession time. I have a horrible habit. Well, several, actually, but only one that we’ll concern ourselves with today. I bite my fingers. Not just the fingernails, either. I chew the cuticles, and I shred the skin of the fingers. It’s not something I want to do or mean to do or am even consciously aware of doing. It’s a nervous compulsion, something I’ve done since childhood. There are times I feel almost disassociated from it, like I’m watching someone do it. When I’m really feeling stress, it tends to manifest physically. I’ve had ulcers when I was younger, and I seem to wear myself to the point of exhaustion at least once a year. During those times, the nailbiting gets even worse than normal. I go into overdrive. Those are the moments when I do real damage to myself, drawing blood. I get incredibly self-aware about it. I can’t imagine what anyone who looks at my fingers must think, but I also know I can’t stop myself.
De Van turns out to be a natural filmmaker, with a hallucinatory sense of mise en scene that makes the film’s second half particularly harrowing. There’s a scene where Esther goes to dinner with her boss and some new clients, and the fabric of reality gets very, very thin. Most of the time, you watch a scene like this, and it’s a very external thing. You see the hallucination like it’s a special effect. Here, though, it’s so gradual, so casual, that it just sort of blindsides you, the same way it does to Esther. When she finally stumbles out of that restaurant, it’s easy to understand precisely what she’s going through, even though de Van is careful never to spell things out in an obvious way.
That may end up working against the film for some viewers. I thought the film ended on a note of ambiguity that was bracing, even intoxicating, but some of the people I talked to about the film felt that it was missing a third act. This was supposed to be a short originally, and then de Van just kept shooting and adding material until she found herself with a feature. It doesn’t make for a conventional narrative, but I found it to be emotionally complete, and unforgettable. Right now, IN MY SKIN is one of the very best films I’ve seen this year, right up there with CITY OF GOD, and I hope there’s a chance for you guys to see it some time this fall in theaters, or next year on video. It’s worth any effort you have to make to see it, and fans of the genre who want to be genuinely challenged by something that doesn’t rely on made-up monsters or pretend terrors owes it to themselves to confront this intense and searing personal vision of Hell.
WHO THE HELL IS HARVEY FENTON?!
Harvey Fenton is the editor and owner of FAB Press, one of the best independent film presses currently publishing. I’ve seen Harvey at the FanTasia Festival in Montreal both times I’ve gone, and I’m struck by what a quiet, unassuming guy he is in many regards. He seems to be deeply in love with cinema that transgresses, but he doesn’t wear it like a flag. Instead, he pours his energy into publishing one great book after another, and I ended up bringing three of them home with me from the fest.
AGITATOR: THE CINEMA OF TAKASHI MIIKE, by Tom Mes, is an impeccably researched and exhaustively thorough look at one of the single most vital forces in international cinema right now. If you need some sort of credibility check regarding Tom Mes, just follow this link and check out all the exceptional work he’s done on the Midnight Eye website. This guy knows his stuff, and reading AGITATOR will make you feel like an expert as well. Part of the kick is finally hearing Miike speak about his films, unfiltered. His production diary for ICHI THE KILLER is incredibly entertaining and insightful, and really does give you a glimpse at what it is that attracted Miike to such heinous source material.
FEAR WITHOUT FRONTIERS: HORROR CINEMA ACROSS THE GLOBE was edited by Steven Jay Schneider, and it’s a scholarly piece of work that does a tremendous job of trying to break down the international horror film scene into a digestible introduction. I think the genre is, in some ways, healthier than it’s ever been, and that delights me to no end. I’ve been a freak for horror movies my whole life. I think it’s one of the most malleable genres, able to give us glimpses of some of life’s hardest truths, and watching what it is that scares a culture gives you one of your best understandings of who they are. No matter how big a fan you are of horror films, chances are you’re going to learn something from reading this book. You’ll get turned on to something you haven’t already seen, or you’ll find yourself jotting down titles that you’re going to have to track down to see for yourself.
The best of the bunch that I brought home though is the massive FLESH & BLOOD COMPENDIUM, edited by Harvey himself. FLESH & BLOOD is a publication I was not aware of before I caught sight of the book, which features the poster for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as the cover. Appropriate. This book deals with extreme horror films and adult erotic films, as well, and that place where sex and horror overlap is what seems to be the main subject matter here. It’s graphic stuff, but it’s endlessly fascinating. Doesn’t matter what page I open this book to, there’s something worth reading. There are some great, enthusiastic writers collected here, and in particular, I dug reading the rants of Mitch Davis, one of the programmers of FanTasia. Now I feel like I have a better sense of what it is that makes Mitch tick, and that’s the mark of great film writing. These writers aren’t trying to convince me to think like them. Instead, they’re just doing their best to articulate what it is that films make them feel, and why it is that they’re drawn to this particular type of film. I have people tell me all the time about what it is that they get from reading AICN, and I can say that I had a similar reaction to this book. These are guys I’d like to hang out with, genre fans after my own sick heart, and I found myself learning about films I’d never heard of, something that delights me considering how many films I see each year and how obscure much of my viewing is. I love that I will always be able to find new things as long as I leave myself open to it, and as long as there are publishers like Harvey Fenton willing to put out books that treat cinema like the delicious, intoxicating smorgasbord that it is.
You can browse the full FAB Press library at their official site, and if you order something, be prepared. The prices aren’t exactly discount, but the books are well worth it. These are dense, challenging books that reaffirm my faith in the idea that Hollywood does not own cinema, even now. There are truly independent voices out there, all over the world, and they are being heard. Tune in now. You’ll be glad you did.