Although Marina de Van has essentially made her name through various collaborations with François Ozon, Dans Ma Peau is a long way from being an automatic recommendation for fans of the de Van-penned Under the Sand (2000) and 8 Women (2002). While Ozon’s latest – the sombre 5×2 (2004) – is not really one for those wanting more of the fun provided by Swimming Pool (2003) and the aforementioned 8 Women, Dans Ma Peau is a jet-black, grisly work that many will find wholly unappetising.
The writer-director herself takes the central role and gives a jittery, unsettling performance as research analyst Esther, who, whilst attending a rather dull-looking party, falls over and gashes her leg. Although claiming to feel little initial pain from this nasty-looking wound, she has the damage repaired by a doctor. Fascinated by this alteration to her body, Esther takes the concept of picking at scabs into a whole new realm, first jabbing away at the freshly stitched wound before inflicting a series of cuts on other parts of her body. She doesn’t even try to be that subtle about it, and both her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas) and colleague Sandrine (the excellent Léa Drucker) make clear their disgust with Esther’s newfound obsession. Esther’s self-harm escalates, and the cuts to her body roughly run parallel with the cutting of people from her life.
In many ways Dans Ma Peau is an easy film to admire, as de Van has cooked up a persistently threatening atmosphere that makes you really dread what’s in the next scene. However, the film never quite delivers on the shocks that its reputation has you steeled for. To some, this will prove disappointing, while for others de Van’s well-judged cutting away from Esther’s cutting away will be lauded as a strategy that keeps the film just the right side of watchable.
While the bloody scenes provide the film’s main talking points, paradoxically it’s the moments between mutilations that see the film at its most engaging: for example, a business dinner attended by Esther includes a conversation on the various merits and drawbacks of Lisbon and Rome, which is infinitely more interesting than the psychotic episode Esther is experiencing. Such scenes allude to what de Van’s real strengths as a writer-director may well be.
The problem many are likely to have with the film is that it doesn’t feel particularly original. If it had appeared fifteen or twenty years ago then it might have passed as a groundbreaking and daring exploration of a taboo subject matter; instead, it all feels more than a touch dated. Many have drawn comparisons with the work of David Cronenberg, which is telling – the Canadian’s flesh-probing exercises such as Rabid (1977) and Videodrome (1983) shackle de Van’s effort to a bygone era. The Cronenberg association is an easy and lazy one to make, when in truth de Van’s effort actually has much more in common with her compatriot Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) – although that Paris-based tale of those with a taste for flesh proved considerably more effective.