In 2002, French filmmaker Marina de Van wrote, directed, and starred in In My Skin. It is a body horror film, but it’s free of supernatural conceits, alien shapeshifters, or psychic powers. In My Skin is a stripped-down psychological portrait of a woman who cannot resist the urge to cut or bite off pieces of her flesh and eat them. There’s no dramatic music or theatrical lighting, just a woman driven by urges she doesn’t understand.
The key to understanding the film is in its understatement. The film is “realistic” in that people are ordinary, including our heroine. There are no car chases or shootouts with the police. It’s just a close-up, teeth-clenching depiction of an unromanticized descent into madness.
Marina de Van plays Esther, a successful advertising executive with a handsome and caring boyfriend and a generally happy social life. There is no traumatic event or buried sorrow that suddenly overtakes her. The trouble begins when she falls one day and cuts her leg. After leaving the hospital, she gradually becomes obsessed with the wound. She begins to pick at it and then widen it, until finally, she is cutting and biting herself all over her body. Again, everything is kept simple and direct. There is no sweaty, heaving desperation, or screaming in agony. She just digs into her skin, bites at her flesh, and licks up the blood.
De Van deliberately excludes any explanation for what we are watching. Nothing appears to be driving this compulsion. The only thing that could be bothering her is the vapid materialism of her job, but that does not seem to be of much concern to her.
In My Skin reminded me of Klaus Händl’s 2016 film, Tomcat. Both films depict a sudden inexplicable change in the main character, leaving us to wonder what went wrong. There’s nothing to hold onto in hopes of a solution. In a Cronenberg film, there would be a clear cause that can be overcome. Body-horror films are often about a person’s body being invaded or changed by an outside force, but De Van's character is doing this to herself, for reasons we cannot see or understand.
We get a small hint about what is happening when, at a dinner meeting, Esther looks down and finds that her forearm is lying on the restaurant table, detached from her body. It is most likely a subjective image depicting an hallucination, but it seems real to her. She quietly slips the body part under the table and somehow reattaches it. She remains calm, but then begins to cut herself under the table. There is some kind of disassociation going on, but it’s not clear what. There is no mental disorder in the DSM that describes Esther’s behavior. There is a disorder called “self-cannibalism”, but it is limited to fingernails, cuticles, and hair.
De Van’s film is only partly about psychology. It is also about deviance and isolation. Esther appears to be somewhat sexually aroused by eating herself. It may be that her aroused expression is simply relief at being able to give in to her urges, but it seems as though there is a certain luxuriating in the ecstasy of it.
There are mental disorders that entail cutting or hurting oneself, but again, it doesn’t seem as though that is what is operating here. Turning mental pain into physical pain can be soothing, even grounding, but Esther is not calmed by her self-harm; she is aroused by it.
Perhaps it’s about something simple and real in a world that is increasingly virtual and symbolic. De Van provides a few opportunities to explore possibilities, but wisely leaves it to us to resolve. Films like this are exactly what Hollywood is missing. In My Skin does not explain itself or beg to be liked. It isn’t designed to follow a classic arc, or reward the audience in the end. It confronts you with something shocking and hard to explain, and leaves you to wrestle with it yourself.
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