French director Marina de Van's "In My Skin" opens with foxy calm. A young woman, Esther (De Van), sketches at home while her boyfriend (Laurent Lucas) nuzzles her neck and the two discuss moving in together. Then one night at a party, Esther takes a fall, tearing open one of her calves.
As if under a spell, she becomes transfixed by the injury, seemingly possessed. She begins crosshatching her skin with deeper, more violent wounds, a frenzy of self-mutilation that eventually leads her to chomp down on one of her arms, gnawing its meat as if it were a cob of sweet corn.
Spectacularly grotesque and literally nauseating, even for this usually intrepid moviegoer, "In My Skin" is among the more disturbing films in this blood-drenched cinematic season. Although it ultimately collapses under the weight of its repulsive imagery -- at times provoking, as with the arm-munching, both giggles and gags -- De Van's film is one of the few features in recent memory that explores violence intellectually, rather than to employ it simply for easy entertainment. Our movie screens are crowded with violated flesh -- bodies that are carved up by sham killers and real plastic surgeons -- but rarely do filmmakers explore the more unsettling truths of body violence, including that for some self-mutilation can be an act of self-creation.
Although socially sanctioned forms of creative self-mutilation such as nose jobs, tattoos and belly piercing now generate yawns, others remain outside mainstream bounds. In a 1997 documentary, filmmaker Kirby Dick shone a sympathetic light on some of the more wincing examples with a portrait of the late performance artist Bob Flanagan, whose rituals of self-injury countered the more brutal ravaging of the cystic fibrosis that finally killed him. The spectacle of self-mutilation is nothing new for the avant-garde, but only recently did its pathological variant hit the mainstream in movies such as "Secretary," "Blue Car" and "Thirteen." In those films, the self-abusers are girls and women who carve their pain onto their bodies through "cutting," if not to the degree expressed in De Van's feature debut.
An emotional blur, Esther initially looks dazed by her everyday existence. She's fast-tracking in both her personal and professional lives, but there's something about her that seems disconnected, remote and a little lost. The first time Esther mutilates herself she's typing a proposal at the public relations firm where she freelances. Suddenly, she stops typing and runs to the basement, whereupon she strips off her pants and begins rooting around in her wounds. When she returns to her desk it's with the energized focus of a woman who's just downed a double espresso. De Van may not have intended to make a horror movie -- though her high-domed forehead and long dark hair evoke horror queen Barbara Steele -- but few scenes are as squirmingly horrible as this furtive interlude.
A sometimes collaborator with filmmaker Francois Ozon, with whom she wrote the noxious "8 Women" and the very fine "Under the Sand," De Van shows promise as a director. She imbues "In My Skin" with a believable, off-kilter naturalism and plays Esther with ethereal fragility, which makes the character's disintegration persuasive if not especially meaningful. The filmmaker's cool tone and preoccupations with the body's terrors indicate an affinity with the early David Cronenberg, and there's something undeniably witty about Esther checking into a hotel for an orgy of self-mutilation. It doesn't take long to realize that this character, cut off from the world, is having an illicit affair with her flesh and blood. But why anyone except the maid should care is a question that De Van never manages to answer.
'In My Skin'
MPAA rating: No rating.
Times guidelines: Graphic wounds, copious blood, auto-cannibalism.
Marina de Van...Esther
Thibault de Montalembert...Daniel
A Wellstone release. Writer-director Marina de Van. Producer Laurence Farenc. Director of photography Pierre Barougier. Editor Mike Fromentin. Production designer Baptiste Glaymann. Costume designer Maielle Robaut. Music Esbjorn Svensson Trio. French with English subtitles. Running: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.