In a previous post, I wrote about Ozon’s See the Sea as an example of the cinéma du corps of the early New French Extremity. By contrast, a later film of this movement, In My Skin (Dans ma peau, 2002), is both more transgressive and more preoccupied with formal considerations. Written and directed by Marina de Van (who plays Tatiana in Ozon’s film), it focuses on the character of Esther (de Van), an ambitious young female professional whose psyche unravels after she receives a disfiguring wound in an accident at a work-related house party.
Wandering alone in the backyard of the recently renovated house, she trips over some building supplies and falls, tearing her pant leg. At first, unaware that she has injured herself, she returns to the house, where she gossips with her friend and co-worker Sandrine (Lea Drucker). It is not until she goes to the bathroom that she realizes that she has a bloody gash in her right lower leg. Even so, she leaves the party to go out for drinks with friends. Later that night, she goes to a hospital, where the on-call intern (Adrian de Van) asks her why she did not seek medical help after she realized that she had hurt herself. She replies that she did not feel any pain until much later. The intern then jokingly asks her, “Are you sure it’s your leg?”
Although she has everything that a young bourgeois Parisian woman could want, including a challenging career in business and a young, urban, professional boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas), a morbid fascination with her disfigured leg begins to distract her from work and other people. Soon she starts having spells in which she engages in destructive acts of self-mutilation. She begins with cutting the surgical sutures in her leg wound. For the spectator, the scenes in which Esther harms herself are difficult to watch. Her cutting and gouging moves from her leg to an arm, then to her entire body, including her face. Although Esther continues to try to pursue her career ambitions (snubbing Sandrine in the process) and her relationship with Vincent (who becomes increasingly upset by her bizarre behavior), the urge towards self-destruction becomes irresistible. Every social challenge in her life triggers an urge to engage in self-mutilation. The urge to hurt herself quickly takes over her life, interfering with both love and work and ultimately leading her to a paroxysm of self-harm while alone in a cheap hotel room.
Before her accident, Esther’s bourgeois existence hardens her to sensation and emotion, as shown by her initial inability to feel the pain of her leg wound. Bound within the structure of the Lacanian Symbolic, she has repressed her emotions (coded by patriarchy as feminine) so that she can have a chance at success in the “man’s world” of business. Thus, she creates a hard, protective, psychological shell comprised of ego defense mechanisms with which she insulates herself from authentic interpersonal relationships and their potential for emotional response. After the accident, the disintegration of this shell leads to the gradual fragmentation of her ego, as demonstrated by her decreasing ability to function in the world of the Symbolic. This event, with its irruption of the abject in the form of a bloody gash in Esther’s skin, stands for an intrusion of the Lacanian Real into her conscious life. Per Wright and Wright:
The Real is that which is both inside and outside the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s endeavours to contain it. In the imaginary mirror-play of illusion a consistency obtains which leaves no gaps for the Real to manifest itself. The Real shows only in the structured effects it produces in mundane reality, and has no existence from the perspective of the symbolic system, the big Other. The fantasy of the Lacanian objet a conceals the gap, itself proof of the Real that lies outside the illusion of consistency. (3)
Esther’s objet a is the knife, which generalizes to any tool with which she can cut herself. For Žižek, the objet a is the “sublime object of ideology”:
…at its simplest, it is that which we most ardently desire, imagining it to be in the possession of the Other. This object, beyond all else, is what is unconsciously believed will fill the void at the core of being. The void is the effect of the constitution of the subject in language out of the Real of the body with all its undirected drives, which language vainly tries to bring entirely within its laws. (3)
Esther’s original injury exposes the void within herself, namely the lack of fulfillment of her basic drives caused by repression of her capacity to feel in the service of trying to succeed in the Parisian bourgeois environment by conforming to its patriarchal capitalistic standards. Thus, each subsequent appearance of a knife-like object (her objet a) in the narrative leads Esther to engage in further physical self-harm in a bizarre attempt to reach the Real within her body (“in her skin”). Unfortunately, the lack she desperately desires to fill “arises from the ultimate incompatibility of the Symbolic and the Real” (5). Thus, the ultimate mental result of Esther’s self-mutilatory behaviors is psychosis.
De Van presents this psychological break in a scene in which Esther attends a high-stakes business dinner. Despite her efforts to impress a high-profile, female client who has accompanied the (male) senior partner in her firm, she cannot resist focusing on her dinner companions’ plates when they carve meat with their forks and knives. She has a delusional experience in which she believes that her left arm, from which she can feel no sensations, has taken on an independent existence. Eventually, she hallucinates this arm as amputated and lying on the table in full view of her business associates, who do not notice it.
She retrieves the arm, reattaches it to her body, then begins cutting it under the table with her steak knife. Her ability to participate in the Symbolic discourse of business rapidly deteriorates, creating an atmosphere of social awkwardness at the table. She decamps in a panic to the restaurant’s wine cellar, where she hides behind racks of wine bottles in a regressed state. There, she realizes the effects of her behavior on the world of the Symbolic when a wine steward discovers her bloody knife on the floor. Shocked out of her psychotic state, she returns to the dinner party, which has concluded. The senior partner is clearly furious with her.
In the closing sequence of In My Skin, de Van (as both writer-director and actress) signifies the “collapse of ideology” with the image of Esther’s complete mental breakdown and physical self-destruction under the stress of her pursuit of bourgeois socioeconomic values. Thanatos, the Freudian death drive, overcomes Eros, the life drive, through an overwhelming return of the repressed – in this case, all the emotions against which Esther had been so heavily defended (and which for Lacan represent the jouissance that is “prohibited in language” [Žižek, Wright, & Wright 12]) in her single-minded pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle. Although this final sequence is open to interpretation, it appears to imply that her morbid obsession has caused her death.
In its cinematography, this sequence is also emblematic of the “high art” formal aesthetic within which de Van deploys her “low art” narrative. It begins with Esther awakening the morning in her cheap hotel room. After dressing, she admires a piece of her skin that she has tanned by treating with chemicals (on the advice of a bewildered pharmacist in a previous scene). It has hardened, shriveled and turned black. With a mixture of sadness and affection, she places it inside her bra and leaves the room. But then a subsequent shot, which begins with an extreme close-up of Esther’s face as she stares vacantly into the camera, tracks out to reveal that she is lying motionless on the bed. This shot repeats once before fading to black. In My Skin’s high-art cinematography is also evident in the use of a split screen in the sequence that depicts Esther’s final paroxysm of self-harm in a series of disorientingly paired close-ups. The use of this technique is foreshadowed by using this technique in the film’s opening credits, over which are shown a series of establishing shots as pairs of positive and negative color images.
The film’s avant-garde form also appears in the its sound design and musical score. The spectator is cued to the onset of Esther’s episodes of self-mutilation, triggered the appearance of her objet a, by extradiegetic sounds of heavy breathing and a shift to dissonance in the musical score. Žižek uses Chion’s concept of rendu to explain how such sounds can be “a way of representing reality distinct from the Imaginary and the Symbolic modes”. Such a representation is achieved “typically through the sound-track, which now takes over as dominant indicator of the narrative reality, while the visual images become a secondary montage”. Thus, this inversion of sound and vision, an “arbitrary stylistic prohibition” on the part of the filmmaker, signifies a psychosis by “making uncannily palpable the tension between Real and Symbolic” (Žižek, Wright, & Wright 13).
Arthouse sound and visuals of an increasingly avant-garde nature, transgressive narratives with increasingly “extreme features: these changing characteristics show the rapid development of the cinéma du corps over the turn of the millennium. This movement would later spread to greater Europe and beyond, producing many more movies that test the spectator’s ability to tolerate the grotesque and abject while delighting the lover of innovation in filmmaking technique.
In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau). Dir. Marina De Van. Perf. Marina De Van and Laurent Lucas. Wellspring Media, 2003. DVD.
Wright, Elizabeth, and Edmond Wright. “Introduction.” The Žižek Reader. By Slavoj Žižek. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 1-8. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj, Elizabeth Wright, and Edmond Wright. “The Undergrowth of Enjoyment: How Popular Culture Can Serve as an Introduction to Lacan.” The Žižek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 11-36. Print.
(Photo of In My Skin writer, director, and star, Marina de Van from Blumhouse.)
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The man behind Loud Green Bird (LGB), “a website devoted to cinema and literature. LGB covers all genres but has a predilection for horror and science fiction. LGB also supports indie film by reviewing the work of indie filmmakers,” Bill Meeker teaches by day, and is a film television critical/cultural studies graduate student. Besides following LGB on Twitter, you can also find more of this driven cinephile at Frisco Kid TX and on Twitter.