Marina de Van has crafted a graphic, resolutely uncompromising portrayal of self-mutilation in “In My Skin,” but it’s not a terribly enlightening trip through the dark side. The writer-director-star fashions what’s virtually a one-woman show around the figure of Esther, a rising researcher at a marketing firm who’s living with a pleasant young banker named Vincent (Laurent Lucas). At a party with her colleague Sandrine (Lea Drucker) one night, Esther has an accident in which her leg is seriously injured. She delays getting medical attention, and afterwards removes the bandage and begins picking at the scabs. Her obsession escalates even as her career becomes more successful, but it also threatens to derail her advancement, as well as her relationship with Vincent. And the denouement is hardly hopeful.
This is a provocative piece on a difficult subject, and there are sequences that are intriguing and impressive. The most noteworthy is a surrealistic business dinner at which Esther, fascinated with the red meat and wine, begins to dissociate and view her arm as entirely detached from the rest of her body. But these imaginative episodes are heavily outnumbered by others that seem gratuitously explicit and grotesque. Toward the close of the dinner sequence, for example, Esther retreats to the wine cellar to cut herself, and by the end of the film we’re watching her carefully remove pieces of skin and consume bits of them; she even stages a car crash to explain her condition and goes to a pharmacy for information on how to tan a large swath of her skin as some sort of ghastly memento.
All of this is presented in a cool, detached manner. De Van gives a controlled performance in the lead, and the atmospheric cinematography and deliberate pacing create a mood of vague dread. But ultimately the viewer is left feeling as though he were a customer at a carnival freak show. The film never offers any explanation for Esther’s self-destructive actions. To be sure, one wouldn’t appreciate some simplistic, by-the-numbers psychobabble, but a complete lack of background on the woman leaves everything happening in a vacuum. There’s a suggestion that her very success is what leads to her behavior, but that’s hardly an adequate observation–unless one’s going to argue that career advancement inevitably leads to self-hatred.
There is, to be sure, a sort of morbid curiosity to “In My Skin,” and one has to grudgingly admire the conviction with which it delivers its thoroughly unsettling vision. But without generating much empathy for its protagonist or offering any substantial psychological insight into what drives Esther to her actions, the film winds up seeming little more than a grisly exercise in well-calibrated acting and what one hopes are well-executed special effects.