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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Skin’ Is More Tragic Than Bizarre

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Philip Ridley’s eerie, unsettling “The Reflecting Skin” (at the Nuart) reveals the impact of terrifying events beyond comprehension upon the imagination of a child. In this respect, the film recalls Rene Clement’s classic “Forbidden Games,” which dealt with the effect of World War II casualties upon two young children, and even more Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive,” in which a little Spanish girl in a rural village, who upon seeing “Frankenstein,” becomes convinced by her older sister that the monster is real and very much alive.

In “The Reflecting Skin” the child, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), who’s nearly 9, comes to believe in this story set in the 1950s that the young widow (Lindsay Duncan) who lives nearby in a drab farmhouse in the midst of a vast Idaho wheat field is a vampire. Seth lives with his parents in a ramshackle house by the side of the road. Rusty car and truck parts are strewn about, and his lame, withdrawn father (Duncan Fraser) sells gas from two ancient pumps and passes the time reading lurid novels.

Seth’s shrill, often hysterical mother (Sheila Moore), driven nearly mad by despair and frustration, is abusive of both husband and child, clinging to the belief that when her grown son (Viggo Mortensen) returns from his Army service in the Pacific, “Things will be different.” (This son’s descriptions of witnessing atomic-bomb tests exemplifies the film’s paradoxical view of the relationship of beauty and evil.)

The film opens with a suitably macabre touch. Seth and two other boys have blown up a live frog like a balloon, placed it in the path of the young widow and then exploded it with a slingshot. Ordered to go over to her house to apologize, he’s struck with her resemblance to a vampire on the cover of one of his father’s books. The widow, a pale, grief-stricken beauty, turns out to be an Englishwoman of exceptional wit and sophistication who has no idea how her neurotic behavior and her humorous reactions to his remarks unwittingly confirm Seth’s worst beliefs about her. At one point she remarks prophetically, “Sometimes terrible things happen naturally.”

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Although filmed in Canada by British writer Philip Ridley (“The Krays”) in his directorial debut, “The Reflecting Skin” is pure American Gothic in which open, sun-drenched rural vistas--quite literally “amber waves of grain"--contrast joltingly with the people who live there, people crippled by sexual ignorance and puritanism who are in the thrall of repressed dark urges ever threatening to rage out of control to consume them and those around them. (It’s not for nothing that Ridley himself describes his film as “ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets Andrew Wyeth, gone mad.”)

The chain of events that catch up with Seth in his terrible innocence are horrific in the utmost, yet the film proceeds not as an exercise in the bizarre and grotesque but with the inevitability of classic tragedy.

“The Reflecting Skin” (Times-rated Mature for intense, violent behavior, some sex, complex themes) is an amazing film, studded with selfless, luminous performances and shot through with dark humor, that risks sheer over-the-top outrageousness at every turn but is so simultaneously inspired and controlled that it gets away with everything.

‘The Reflecting Skin’

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Jeremy Cooper: Seth Dove

Lindsay Duncan: Dolphin Blue

Viggo Mortensen: Cameron Dove

Sheila Moore: Ruth Dove

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Duncan Fraser: Luke Dove

A Prestige release of a British Screen, BBC Films and Zenith Productions presentation of a Fugitive Films production. Writer-director Philip Ridley. Producers Dominic Anciano. Ray Burdis. Executive producer Jim Beach. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Scott Thomas. Music Nick Bicat. Art director Rick Roberts. Set decorator Andrea French. Sound George Tarrant. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (Intense, violent behavior, some sex, complex adult themes).


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