As a horror film fanatic, I often seek out the films that people call ‘the most disturbing and repellent films’. Sometimes we have films that are poorly executed and end up only being exploitative garbage like August Underground and Guinea Pig; while others cross those taboo boundaries in an evocative and gripping way that is something distinctive and (mostly) watchable like A Serbian Film and Martyrs. In My Skin, fortunately, falls in the latter category and will, if it isn’t already, be a favorite for horror extremists.
There are a lot of films about cannibalism. It is certainly a subject that will make just about anyone’s skin crawl, even the most eccentric horror fans. It’s right up there with the most offensive topics, necrophilia and incest. But what about self-cannibalism/auto-cannibalism? The act of eating your own flesh takes cannibalism to a whole new level. There have been a few scenes in horror history that suggests such, but no film has ever brought this topic to the forefront like In My Skin.
Written, directed, and starred in by Marina de Van, the film follows Esther down a destructive path of mental torment that eventually leads to self-cannibalism. The film opens with Esther sitting at a desk as the camera pans up her long, smooth, and flawless legs. Little do we know what they are to become. Yes, her legs. Shortly thereafter she is shown at a party where she gruesomely cuts her leg by accident.
The only negative thing I can say about this scene is the fact that Esther doesn’t realize how badly she cuts her leg until hours later when she notices it is profusely dripping blood. But thanks to the solid screenwriting, my negative thought vanishes with some easily answered questions. She tells the doctor she couldn’t feel the pain until she noticed the cut. The doctor said that’s unusual but shock can do funny things to your body. Why can’t all films fix problems this easily? Esther’s boyfriend, played by the amazingly talented Laurent Lucas, thinks it’s strange she doesn’t feel anything either and feels helpless trying to help her down her eventual private path of destruction.
This wound is like an itch that needs to be scratched, or in Esther’s case, torn open. She is like the ultimate cutter, feeling alive and invigorated after the act. Like a lot of mental illnesses, it is hard for an outsider to understand why some people act the way they do. Even with my psychology degree and educational understanding of such matters, the extremity of her acts are disturbingly bewildering. Esther explains it as a mindless urge. But does she really believe that? Although we never really find out the root of her problem, Esther’s revolting external wounds are just a surface representation of her intense mental anguish.
This film has a more “artsy” and “indie” feel to it than most horror films which makes me want to put it in a category with Trouble Every Day (2001). It also reminds me of Crash (1996), with its bleak, psychosexual journey of perpetuated mutilation. Excision (2012) also comes to mind with the main character’s shared fondness and fascination of the human body. It also definitely belongs in the French extreme genre along the likes of Martyrs, Inside, Calvaire, and Haute Tension.
There are few films that give me the need to avert my eyes, but this is one of them. Each cutting session becomes more and more extreme. The final thirty minutes of the film are utterly grotesque and nearly unbearable as Esther basks in her own blood in delight and ecstasy. The superb use of a split screen during these final moments, along with an intentionally mismatched audio, creates a scene of chaos, shock, and confusion. She becomes dehumanized and increasingly animalistic as she succumbs to her innate desires of self-mutilation. A horror film that can make such a profound statement into the psyche of the human mind easily puts this is my top ten favorite horror films, ever. My list is constantly in flux, but this film continues to steadily hold its ground.
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