Last week I had some essential dental work done — something that I had been putting off for years. In the aftermath, the new bridge that covers the spot where teeth are missing or defective is fine. But my gums are awfully sore, even today, a week later. The pain is slight in amplitude, just barely above the threshold of awareness — which is just enough to be annoying. I’m taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen (not simultaneously, but one after the other) to dull the pain. But I also have this incessant compulsion to probe the sore spots, with my tongue and with my fingers. Doing so actually makes the gums hurt more; but I can’t get rid of the feeling that this constant probing is also in some sort of way a cure, or a solution, as if stimulating the pain in this manner was a way to make the feeling active instead of passive, to claim it for myself, to incorporate it, so it would no longer be something that’s just happening to me, no longer something from which I suffer.
It is through this experience — and others like it in the past — that I relate to Marina de Van’s extraordinary film In My Skin. A thirty-something woman (played by de Van, who stars in the film as well as being the director and screenwriter) injures herself at a party: she goes out to the back lawn for some fresh air, and in the dark she stumbles over some sort of tool (we never get to see it) that tears up her leg, leaving some ugly gashes. Although she is bleeding, she goes back to the party as if nothing had happened, and doesn’t bring herself to go to the emergency room until hours later. In the days to come, she develops a fascination with her wound, tearing off the bandages so she can feel and trace the cuts, and then cutting herself to extend the network of bloody lines. As the film proceeds, she grows more and more obsessive. All this plays out against the background of her life as a Parisian yuppie, moving up the corporate ladder as an advertising consultant, and alternately arguing with and making up with her boyfriend (who’s a self-centered asshole). At one point, during a dinner meeting with a client, she hallucinates that her left arm has been replaced by a prosthesis and has started to act in alien ways, out of her control; she starts furtively cutting it under the table, with a steak knife. Later that evening, she fakes an auto accident so that her boyfriend won’t know that the wounds were deliberately self-inflicted. And it escalates from there: she eventually holes up in a hotel room, lying in fetal position while she cuts off rectangles of her skin, licking up the blood and putting the skin fragments aside for later preservation via tanning.
What’s remarkable about In My Skin is not just the presentation of an obsession, but the affective tone and mode of presentation. Though the film is definitely visceral in impact, it’s also psychologically muted — which makes it all the more intense. No explanation, either psychological or sociological, is ever given for the main character’s obsession. It’s just a brute fact of her being, something that defines and dominates her very existence. At the same time, though we see some of the cutting, the cutting scenes are dominated by close-ups of her face. This leads us to identify with her emotional reactions, which range from dread to blankness to nearly orgasmic bliss — without our being able to ground these emotions, because (in the absence of any causal explanation) we cannot relate them intelligibly to what she is actually doing to her body. The result is a ferocious intensity that is at the same time very nearly abstract. Towards the end of the film, instead of these facial shots de Van splits the screen and gives us two different angles, both in extreme close-up, on the same few inches of skin, knife, and surrounding objects: the effect, again, is one of visceralness and abstraction at the same time. The more intimately the film reduces its focus to just the consciousness of its protagonist, the more oddly impersonal it becomes. (I can’t help thinking, at this point, of Maurice Blanchot, the author who — aside from Proust — has demonstrated most profoundly how intimacy is tied to impersonality: for the deeper you go, the more you explore interiority and the precognitive desires and feelings that drive us, the more everything that we know as “personality” and “psychology” falls away, and the more we discover an impersonality that is tied to otherness, to the Outside).
The emotional tone of In My Skin, to the extent that it can be pinned down at all, is closer to horror than to any other genre. I was reminded a bit of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Except that in Monique de Van’s film, the vampire/cannibal and the victim are the same person. Monstrosity cannot be projected outward; it becomes a sort of auto-affection, and thereby an of self-love, a way of fashioning and relating to oneself. (As Foucault taught us, it’s precisely because the “self” doesn’t exist a priori, because there is no pregiven phenomenological subject, because “the given” is prepersonal or impersonal, that “care of the self” or “self-fashioning” becomes the most crucial existential and political issue).
In vampire stories, the vampire’s insatiable desire often wins our sympathy: because of the allure of shadows; or because the vampire suffers and endures more than his victims; or because such infinite longing can never be resolved in satisfaction; or because the inextricable intermingling of life and death is something we cannot conceive and yet know in our hearts; or because such desire, however cruel, seems more authentic (more alive, ironically) than the repression and coldness of the society in which the vampire’s victims live. In My Skin goes further than any other vampire story in exploring these dimensions, and in excavating the strange, impersonal intimacy at the heart of vampiric terror. In other words, In My Skin is the tenderest of all horror films.