(Warning: contains scenes that will disturb some viewers.)
Edinburgh Festival director Shane Danielsen wasn’t mucking about when it came to screening Marina de Van’s debut feature earlier this summer. Everywhere you saw the words Dans Ma Peau (2002), you saw the above, bracketed warning. Just in case we were really ignorant, he took the unusual step of introducing an entry for which none of the talent had turned up to promote. "Please feel free to leave." The anticipation and uncertainty of the audience grew as the curtains drew and the lights dimmed. Would it, could it, be that gruelling? Would we last the duration? Could we?
De Van (writer, director, star) plays a young businesswoman who cuts the lower length of her leg at a party and soon decides to continue to mutilate herself. It certainly is extreme, and one could not help that think that, just like the festival’s repetitive promotional warnings, there is as much tease and dare here as the old William Castle publicity riffs. De Van knows her audience has come to see her get damaged and so stretches the initial accident with a tantalising series of almost trips, falls and bumps. But when ‘it’ comes, it comes. She turns up the slow burn by abusing the audiences’ imagination as much as her own flesh. The sounds of skin tearing and ripping are heightened by accentuated sound effects. Blood spatters onto our heroine’s face as she tucks into her knee. Soon every shiny object is a potential opportunity for the troubled mademoiselle to scar herself again.
This is not just another arty French grindhouse. This is an intelligent study of a woman slowly going mad. Are her actions a response to the objectification of her body? She subjectively places herself as object of desire to begin with. The opening scene ends with a slow, sensual climb up de Van’s perfect long legs. The film starts with actual splits down the centre of the screen. The credit sequence has serene modern architecture cracked down the middle by a border and the colours inversed of one half. There is another side de Van is telling us, different from what we are used to, jarring to the eye. Yet that makes this other side no less valid. Get ready to explore this. Get ready to cross the line.
So the question that remains is, why? Is this self-abuse a response to the growing pressures of her office work, the growing seriousness of her long-term relationship? Or perhaps she has merely cast herself in the novel she is writing in the opening scene? The rest of the film is a fantasy, a rejection of the work she will have to take on to fund her career. If so, then the fictional job in the market research office shows her boss forcing her to put his words into her report, something that must feel abhorrent to a creative young writer. At least her harmful illicit behaviour is her own choice, her alien penetrations her own action. Whether it’s reality or the novel on which she was working, we leave Esther scarred and covered in her own blood, but writing her own words again. Approach, but approach with caution.