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.
The challenge remains, one supposes, just how to distinguish this potentially radical sense of impersonality (as the rigorously sober quodlibet basis for a community without belonging) from its cheap, superficial and sentimental advertising clone. Let this space help stand, in some modest way, for that endeavor.