4-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.scandal.4-1.9 |  Charey­ron PDF


This arti­cle explores how Mari­na de Van’s con­fronta­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the human body, in her film Dans ma peau/In my Skin (2001), should be under­stood as a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of cer­tain major themes in the hor­ror genre. More specif­i­cal­ly, I exam­ine how de Van’s mise-en-scène bor­rows from the genre of hor­ror , both on a visu­al and a tech­ni­cal lev­el, to decon­struct the mean­ings ini­tial­ly attached to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the body in pain found in horror’s nar­ra­tives. I argue that a close analy­sis of the tex­tur­al prop­er­ties of the image allows for a reap­praisal of the onscreen pres­ence of the wound­ed body, this body depart­ing from horror’s straight­for­ward visu­al reg­i­men, to open up a space for the character’s sub­jec­tiv­i­ty to emerge. I also posit that the use of the close-up on images of blood and scars, while being rem­i­nis­cent of horror’s treat­ment of the body, becomes a vehi­cle for the unleash­ing of the character’s unmedi­at­ed dri­ves to explore her own flesh and to reach a new lev­el of self-aware­ness.

Cet arti­cle pro­pose de con­sid­ér­er la représen­ta­tion con­frontante du corps humain par Mari­na de Van dans son film « Dans ma peau » (2001) comme une réin­ter­pré­ta­tion de cer­tains thèmes cen­traux au genre de l’horreur. Plus con­crète­ment, on mon­tre que Van emprunte au genre de l’horreur sur les plans visuel et tech­nique afin de décon­stru­ire les sig­ni­fi­ca­tions liées à la représen­ta­tion du corps souf­frant dans le réc­it d’horreur. On sou­tient qu’une analyse appro­fondie des car­ac­téris­tiques rel­a­tives à la tex­ture de l’image per­met une réé­val­u­a­tion de la présence sur l’écran du corps blessé, à par­tir du régime visuel de base du réc­it d’horreur. Cette réé­val­u­a­tion crée un espace où la sub­jec­tiv­ité du per­son­nage peut appa­raître. La représen­ta­tion en gros plan du sang et des cica­tri­ces rap­pelle le traite­ment du corps dans le cadre du genre de l’horreur. On sug­gère ultime­ment que cette représen­ta­tion devient un instru­ment pour que le per­son­nage qui déchaîne un désir spon­tané d’exploration de sa pro­pre chair afin d’atteindre une plus haute con­science de soi.

Romain Charey­ron | Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas

Horror and the Body:
Understanding the Reworking of the Genre in Marina de Van’s Dans ma peau/In my Skin (2001)

From the moment it was released, Mari­na de Van’s direc­to­r­i­al debut Dans ma peau (In my Skin, 2001) has been praised as the shin­ing exam­ple of French cinema’s con­tentious new trend of ciné­ma du corps.[1] Main­ly inter­est­ed in vis­cer­al and dis­com­fort­ing depic­tions of the human body, ciné­ma du corps des­ig­nates “[…] a spate of recent French films that deal frankly and graph­i­cal­ly with the body and cor­po­re­al trans­gres­sions [and] whose basic agen­da is an on-screen inter­ro­ga­tion of phys­i­cal­i­ty in bru­tal­ly inti­mate terms” (Palmer, Bru­tal Inti­ma­cy 57). With its uncom­pro­mis­ing por­tray­al of Esther [Mari­na de Van], a young and suc­cess­ful woman whose life spins out of con­trol when she begins to explore her body by way of self-muti­la­tion and self-can­ni­bal­ism, the film undoubt­ed­ly echoes some of ciné­ma du corps’ main aes­thet­ic and nar­ra­tive con­cerns in its desire to “[push] screen depic­tions of phys­i­cal­i­ty to unwel­come lim­its, rais­ing basic issues of what is accept­able on-screen” (Palmer, “Style and Sen­sa­tion in the Con­tem­po­rary French Cin­e­ma of the Body” 22). If the film’s unflinch­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of phys­i­cal­i­ty war­rants its affil­i­a­tion with this new cin­e­mat­ic trend, it is essen­tial to under­stand where this rep­re­sen­ta­tion orig­i­nates, in order to appre­ci­ate the com­plex visu­al reg­i­men it cre­ates as well as its impact on the images them­selves and how we respond to them.

For the most part, the film’s uncom­pro­mis­ing treat­ment of the body in pain has been ana­lyzed in the light of what shaped up to become ciné­ma du corps’ “man­i­festo,” includ­ing top­ics such as:

[…] dis­pas­sion­ate phys­i­cal encoun­ters involv­ing filmed sex that is some­times unsim­u­lat­ed; phys­i­cal desire embod­ied by the per­for­mances of actors or non­pro­fes­sion­als as harsh­ly insu­lar; inti­ma­cy itself depict­ed as fun­da­men­tal­ly aggres­sive, devoid of romance, lack­ing a nur­tur­ing instinct or empa­thy of any kind; and social rela­tion­ships that dis­in­te­grate in the face of such vio­lent com­pul­sions (Palmer, Bru­tal Inti­ma­cy 57-58).

The pit­fall of this analy­sis is that it fails to acknowl­edge the film’s most sig­nif­i­cant aes­thet­ic achieve­ment, name­ly, how it uses the hor­ror genre as a foun­da­tion for its deeply inti­mate and pro­found­ly dis­qui­et­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the human body. How­ev­er, the ref­er­ences to hor­ror nev­er appear as a sim­ple gim­mick with­in the film, as the lat­ter does not rely on the shock val­ue that comes with the exces­sive dis­play of blood or dis­mem­bered bod­ies, as does tra­di­tion­al hor­ror cin­e­ma. My pro­pos­al is that, what defines the film’s aes­thet­ics is its con­stant rework­ing of the var­i­ous visu­al and/or tech­ni­cal com­po­nents of hor­ror. In so doing, the film attempts to observe how these com­po­nents can oper­ate out­side the genre’s pre-estab­lished frame­work and gen­er­ate new ways of under­stand­ing images of the body.

This arti­cle will exam­ine how the film decon­structs horror's high­ly cod­i­fied visu­al reg­i­men in order to open up a space where the trans­for­ma­tion­al capac­i­ties of the body can be ful­ly expressed. By ana­lyz­ing specifics of the mise-en-scène, such as the tex­tur­al prop­er­ties of the image and the tech­nique of the close-up, I will argue that the nar­ra­tive decon­structs the hor­ror genre, both in its themes and its visu­al treat­ment of the body, to posi­tion the lat­ter with­in a dis­course of empow­er­ment whose aim it is to chal­lenge social norms of behav­ior and beau­ty.

Since, for Esther, it is first and fore­most a per­son­al quest, each scar has a dif­fer­ent mean­ing, which is visu­al­ly con­veyed by its shape and its posi­tion on the body” (Rouy­er, “Style and Sen­sa­tion” 29; my trans­la­tion): these words come from Mari­na de Van her­self, explain­ing the mean­ing attached to Esther’s acts of self-muti­la­tion and self-can­ni­bal­ism. I chose this quo­ta­tion as the main premise of my analy­sis, for it con­veys the dual nature at the heart of the acts depict­ed with­in the nar­ra­tive; if they first recall the hor­ror genre through their explic­it rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a wound­ed body, the mean­ing of such graph­ic acts has to be under­stood as going beyond the sim­ple desire to present us with dis­qui­et­ing images of vio­lence and tor­ture. Skin, in de Van's film, becomes the ulti­mate way for the char­ac­ter to reclaim her own body, so that flesh – the sur­face – grad­u­al­ly becomes an inscrib­able sur­face where Esther's inner tur­moil and feel­ings – the inside – find their visu­al tran­scrip­tion.

The seman­tic insta­bil­i­ty of the skin is estab­lished through the open­ing shots of the film, with a close-up of Esther's leg, as she is seen sit­ting at her desk, typ­ing on her com­put­er. The uncan­ny emerges out of this famil­iar set­ting through the com­bined work of the light­ing and the edit­ing. The for­mer works to bring out the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the flesh, as the use of a chiaroscuro intends to show the rugged­ness and the imper­fec­tions of the skin.[2] In so doing, the film refus­es to aes­theti­cize the body, but instead wish­es to reveal it in all its raw cor­po­re­al­i­ty. Our ini­tial dis­com­fort is rein­forced by the edit­ing, as there is no track­ing shot on the leg that would allow us to men­tal­ly “attach” it to Esther’s body. Instead, the edit­ing cuts to a close-up on Esther’s face, as we see her scru­ti­niz­ing the screen of her com­put­er. Body and mind are clear­ly dis­con­nect­ed in this scene, and strange­ness aris­es from the com­bined work of the close-up and the abrupt edit­ing, as they “[…] con­vert a con­crete enti­ty into a decon­tex­tu­al­ized immo­bile sur­face with motor ten­den­cies that express­es an affec­tive quality/power” (Rogue 79). The con­joined work of the mise-en-scène and the edit­ing serves to high­light the raw mate­ri­al­i­ty of the flesh and to con­vey the idea that the body has a life of its own that can­not be sub­ject­ed to the pow­er of the mind. This fore­shad­ows the shift that will occur when Esther will let her uncon­trolled impuls­es take prece­dence over social rules of con­duct by dam­ag­ing her body,[3] alien­at­ing her friends and loved ones in the process. By iso­lat­ing the leg and giv­ing the spec­ta­tor an acute sense of the den­si­ty of the flesh, the mise-en-scène empha­sizes the tex­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of the skin. This visu­al device will evolve to become a cen­tral ele­ment of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, as we get to see Esther’s leg cov­ered with blood and scars, indi­cat­ing the dif­fer­ent stages of the young woman’s explo­ration of her own body.

This ini­tial work on the inher­ent strange­ness of the skin is rem­i­nis­cent of one of hor­ror cinema’s found­ing con­cepts that con­sists in reveal­ing, through pure­ly cin­e­mat­ic means, the unfa­mil­iar­i­ty that lies at the heart of seem­ing­ly banal objects and events:

It is as if the way of pre­sent­ing events would reveal the true […] mean­ing of a ges­ture or a sit­u­a­tion that would oth­er­wise appear banal. This is not achieved by con­nect­ing these events to the ordi­nary mean­ing they are endowed with in every­day life, but by incor­po­rat­ing them with­in the new con­text of a pos­si­ble world that gives them a new sig­nif­i­cance […] (Dufour 29; my trans­la­tion).

The nar­ra­tive starts to ques­tion the mean­ing of the body and its on-screen pres­ence through a defa­mil­iar­iza­tion process that forces us to see some­thing com­mon (a leg) in an unfa­mil­iar way. Our ques­tion­ing is inten­si­fied by the tech­nique of the split-screen, which con­sists of show­ing two images simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and sep­a­rate­ly on the screen. Each screen dis­plays var­i­ous urban set­tings (a belt­way, offices) and ran­dom objects from every­day life (pens, scis­sors). This tech­nique rais­es our aware­ness of the skin as being a trans­formable sur­face, and it does so by intro­duc­ing the notion of “cut­ting” as a found­ing ele­ment of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion. This is first con­veyed through the tech­nique of the split-screen that estab­lish­es a par­al­lel between the “skin” of the film – the reel – and the actu­al human skin – the epi­der­mis – that Esther will sub­se­quent­ly cut. Then, the com­bined work of the shoot­ing scale and the edit­ing gives a sim­i­lar sig­nif­i­cance to the objects present with­in the shots and Esther's leg. Con­se­quent­ly, we asso­ciate the close-up on the pair of scis­sors with the shot of the leg, the lat­ter emerg­ing as a sur­face that can be manip­u­lat­ed and trans­formed and whose sig­nif­i­cance always has to be rede­fined. In so doing, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion hints at the fact that Esther’s body is first and fore­most defined by its poten­tial for trans­for­ma­tion.

If the first shots of the film use the image of the yet intact leg as a visu­al motif for the uncan­ny pres­ence of the body on-screen, the nar­ra­tive then unfolds a series of images that focus on the injured limb in order to rep­re­sent the dif­fer­ent stages per­tain­ing to Esther’s phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. If these scenes might appear to tight­en the con­nec­tions between the film and the hor­ror genre, they first and fore­most encap­su­late the narrative's intri­cate rework­ing of some of the genre's most sig­nif­i­cant topoi. The scene at the doctor's office, which takes place soon after Esther ini­tial­ly injured her leg at a par­ty, con­sti­tutes an inter­est­ing exam­ple of how the film pro­ceeds to retain some of horror’s visu­al codes (i.e. the focus on the blood and the open wounds) while dis­rupt­ing their ini­tial mean­ing. In this scene, Esther’s leg is per­ceived through a series of close-ups that reveal each minute detail of the gash, allow­ing us to see the deep scars that run along the leg, the clot­ted blood and the sur­gi­cal suture sewn by the doc­tor. The unflinch­ing dis­play of the dam­aged flesh echoes the modus operan­di of tra­di­tion­al hor­ror nar­ra­tives, since “[1]t [hor­ror cin­e­ma] cor­re­sponds to the nega­tion of the out-of-frame and the elid­ed. The cam­era invests the for­mer so that it can ful­ly dwell on images of hor­ror, while the lat­ter is denied so that death and phys­i­cal pain can be felt in their dura­tion” (Rouy­er, “Entre­tien” 161; my trans­la­tion, my empha­sis). If this scene makes the body in pain the cen­tral ele­ment of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, it is nec­es­sary to move beyond the first impres­sions of shock and dis­gust in order to under­stand the rai­son d'être of such a visu­al reg­i­men. To do so, we need to observe how the film denies the spec­ta­tor visu­al mas­tery over the rep­re­sen­ta­tion and choos­es to rely on the tex­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of the image by switch­ing from an optic to a hap­tic mode of vision. By unset­tling our sense of per­cep­tion and height­en­ing our sen­so­ry invest­ment with­in the nar­ra­tive, the film dis­rupts any uncom­pli­cat­ed con­nec­tion between its imagery and the hor­ror genre, as it allows the cin­e­mat­ic body to exist and gen­er­ate mean­ing beyond a nor­ma­tive frame, so that the character's sub­jec­tiv­i­ty reg­u­lates the flow of dis­turb­ing images we are pre­sent­ed with.

When optic vision is based on ratio­nal­i­ty and verisimil­i­tude between the on-screen world and the realm of human expe­ri­ence, hap­tic vision breaks this con­tract to pull the audi­ence into a world ruled by feel­ings and sen­sa­tions, rather than by human log­ic and the desire of mas­tery through the gaze. As Mar­tine Beugnet apt­ly points out: “[w]hereas optic images set dis­crete, self-stand­ing ele­ments of fig­u­ra­tion in illu­sion­is­tic spaces, hap­tic images dehier­ar­chise per­cep­tion, draw­ing atten­tion back to tac­tile details and the mate­r­i­al sur­face where fig­ure and ground start to fuse” (65-66).  We observe a sim­i­lar shift in the scene at the doctor's office; we first see Esther through a long shot that estab­lish­es a clear sep­a­ra­tion between her body and that of the spec­ta­tor. Then, the dif­fer­ent images of the wound­ed leg being pal­pat­ed and stitched are shot in a series of close-ups from a sub­jec­tive cam­era angle, giv­ing the spec­ta­tor the illu­sion of per­son­al expe­ri­ence (see figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1 “Hap­tic vision and spec­ta­to­r­i­al involve­ment.”

Fig. 2 “Flesh as mal­leable sur­face.”

By immers­ing the spec­ta­tor into a world of raw sen­sa­tions, the mise-en-scène height­ens our sen­so­ry response to the images on-screen and blurs the bound­ary between observ­er and observee, forc­ing us to aban­don our posi­tion as pas­sive onlook­ers to become active par­tic­i­pants with­in the fic­tion. Through the com­bined use of the close-up and the sub­jec­tive cam­era angle, we are not sim­ply con­front­ed with dis­turb­ing images of the scars on the leg, as we lit­er­al­ly come to iden­ti­fy with Esther. A fusion oper­ates between spec­ta­tor and char­ac­ter, whose aim it is to inten­si­fy the audience’s phys­i­cal involve­ment with­in the fic­tion. By rely­ing on visu­al strate­gies that gen­er­ate “[…] sen­so­ry impres­sions that styl­is­ti­cal­ly out­run and strate­gi­cal­ly over­whelm its nar­ra­tive” (Palmer, “Bru­tal Inti­ma­cy” 86), the film asks us to feel Esther’s pain and con­fu­sion in our own body. This cor­po­re­al and emo­tion­al invest­ment takes prece­dence over the sheer dis­gust that usu­al­ly aris­es at the vision of injured bod­ies in tra­di­tion­al hor­ror cin­e­ma and, as a result, fore­stalls any moral judg­ment on our behalf.

It is by enhanc­ing the tex­tur­al prop­er­ties of the image and the feel­ing of touch with­in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion that this phys­i­cal involve­ment between the audi­ence and the image is made pos­si­ble. In so doing, the film sym­bol­i­cal­ly bridges the gap that sep­a­rates the spec­ta­tor from the fic­tion­al space:

The viewer's skin and the film's skin allow a fleet­ing, incom­plete kind of access to the oth­er, which is plea­sur­able in its imper­ma­nence and incom­ple­tion. Their role at and as the sur­face of a body, as tex­ture that both reveals and con­ceals, marks the fun­da­men­tal affin­i­ty between the human's skin and the film's skin (Bark­er 49).

To achieve this, the dif­fer­ent shots of the injured leg play on a series of oppo­site sen­sa­tions linked to touch and the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the flesh, where the smooth tex­ture of the intact leg echoes the scars that cov­er the wound­ed one, and the red col­or of the blood­ied leg is opposed to the pal­lor of the oth­er. In the scene at the doctor's, the injured leg rather resem­bles a rugged land­scape, and the gash can be assim­i­lat­ed to a deep geo­graph­i­cal fis­sure, so that we are moved beyond the ini­tial shock of hor­ror to invest the rep­re­sen­ta­tion and to phys­i­cal­ly expe­ri­ence the pain and the poten­tial for trans­for­ma­tion that aris­es out of the dam­aged flesh. Through the estab­lish­ment of hap­tic vision, flesh becomes a mal­leable ele­ment that can be touched, cut open and stitched up in order to cre­ate some­thing new, whose mean­ing can­not be intel­lec­tu­al­ized, but only felt. Any idea of moral judg­ment is deterred, as our cor­po­re­al and emo­tion­al invest­ment takes prece­dence over the sheer dis­gust that usu­al­ly aris­es at the vision of injured bod­ies in tra­di­tion­al hor­ror cin­e­ma, which enables us to share Esther’s sphere of expe­ri­ence on a deeply inti­mate lev­el.

Build­ing on this piv­otal scene, the film sub­se­quent­ly doc­u­ments Esther’s esca­lat­ing prac­tice of self-cut­ting, the acme being reached when the young woman locks her­self in a hotel room to cut and eat pieces of her skin. Where­as the scene at the doctor's office rep­re­sent­ed Esther's rather detached reac­tion to the vision of her wound­ed body, the scene tak­ing place in the hotel room pic­tures Esther will­ing­ly cut­ting her­self and trans­form­ing her own body, the lat­ter mov­ing from a pas­sive form to an active force. This scene echoes hor­ror cinema’s sym­bol­ic use of the close-up, as the cam­era focus­es on Esther’s upper body, while blood from her wounds is drip­ping on her face. I will observe how the film uses the tech­nique of the close-up, com­bined with the pres­ence of blood and wounds, to tran­scribe Esther's inner urges, so that the close-up departs from the ideas of con­straint and lim­i­ta­tion usu­al­ly attached to it and becomes the priv­i­leged mode of expres­sion for Esther's unchart­ed explo­ration of her own body.

The tech­nique of the close-up, asso­ci­at­ed with images of dis­mem­bered bod­ies, gap­ing wounds and blood is emblem­at­ic of a visu­al reg­i­men whose sig­nif­i­cance can be traced back to hor­ror and, more specif­i­cal­ly, the sub­genre of gore cin­e­ma (Rouy­er, Le Ciné­ma gore 162). Despite its unques­tion­able ties to the hor­ror genre, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the body in de Van's film is not so much inter­est­ed in those con­stituent topoi of hor­ror that are the exces­sive and elab­o­rate dis­play of blood and wounds, as it wish­es to unleash the poten­tial for trans­for­ma­tion and free­dom that comes out of such extreme exper­i­ment­ing. To under­stand how the rep­re­sen­ta­tion priv­i­leges the trans­for­ma­tion­al pow­er of the body over a sen­sa­tion­al depic­tion of the dam­aged flesh, it is nec­es­sary that we focus our atten­tion on the sig­nif­i­cance of Esther's body move­ments and, more specif­i­cal­ly, on the action that con­sists in self-con­scious­ly harm­ing her­self (see Figs 3 and 4).

Fig. 3 “The unleash­ing of inner impuls­es.”

Fig. 4 “The tex­tur­al impli­ca­tions of the image.”

In the scene that takes place in the hotel room, Esther’s desire for self-empow­er­ment finds a pri­ma­ry means of expres­sion in her move­ments, as they sym­bol­ize her denial of a body ruled by log­ic and ratio­nal­i­ty in favor of a body sub­ject­ed to the unre­strict­ed dri­ves that inhab­it it. By con­nect­ing the fleet­ing nature of the impuls­es that run through the body to their vis­i­ble expres­sion at the sur­face of the skin, Bri­an Massumi's work on the con­cept of “affect” offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty to con­nect the unfurl­ing of arrest­ing cor­po­re­al images to Esther's inti­mate desire to cre­ate a new iden­ti­ty for her­self. Mas­su­mi calls “affects,” or “inten­si­ties,” actions that do not respond to any pre-estab­lished scheme and that are detached from any idea of log­ic or causal­i­ty. He oppos­es “inten­si­ty” to what he calls “depth” and cor­re­sponds to con­scious, thought­ful actions:

Inten­si­ty is embod­ied in pure­ly auto­nom­ic reac­tions most direct­ly man­i­fest­ed in the skin - at the sur­face of the body, as its inter­face with things. Depth reac­tions belong more to the form/content (qual­i­fi­ca­tion) lev­el […]. They [depth reac­tions] are a con­scious-auto­nom­ic mix, a mea­sure of their par­tic­i­pa­tion in one anoth­er. Inten­si­ty is behind that loop, a non­con­scious, nev­er-to-con­scious auto­nom­ic remain­der […]. It is nar­ra­tive­ly de-local­ized, spread­ing over the gen­er­al­ized body sur­face, like a lat­er­al back­wash from the func­tion-mean­ing inter­loops trav­el­ling the ver­ti­cal path between head and heart (Mas­su­mi 85).

In the film, “inten­si­ty” is first made vis­i­ble through Esther's unnat­ur­al body move­ments and the way she occu­pies the space of the frame. Her body is pre­sent­ed as pure inten­si­ty, only guid­ed by the unre­strained impuls­es that rule the fran­tic cut­ting and eat­ing of her own flesh, as well as the con­tor­tions she resorts to and that see her in the most unlike­ly pos­tures.[4] The rhythm of the scene is entire­ly artic­u­lat­ed around the dif­fer­ent stages per­tain­ing to Esther's exper­i­men­ta­tion with her body, so that the human fig­ure no longer appears to be reg­u­lat­ed by stan­dard codes of behav­ior, but is instead per­ceived as an autonomous enti­ty that has evolved to become “[…] a body pass­ing from form to form­less­ness, becom­ing a deformed and unrec­og­niz­able enti­ty from which, in turn, form emerges” (Beugnet 34).

The ever-chang­ing qual­i­ty of the body and the flow of images it gen­er­ates are also addressed by the sen­su­ous invest­ment of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion that oper­ates through a mul­ti-lay­ered com­po­si­tion. The entire scene func­tions on a series of tex­tur­al sen­sa­tions that height­en our per­cep­tion of the body's phys­i­cal changes; the black pants cut by Esther first reveal the pal­lor of her skin which, in turn, is cut open and from which bright red blood starts drip­ping, which Esther then smears over her face. As a con­se­quence, we become espe­cial­ly aware of the inter­pre­ta­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties achieved through the trans­for­ma­tion of tex­tures and sur­faces, as Esther's desire to sub­vert the aes­thet­ic con­cept of beau­ty “[…] spins a series of bod­i­ly images that erad­i­cate all sense of fixed cor­po­re­al lim­its or bound­aries” (del Río 162).

The unleash­ing of Esther's impuls­es is also accom­pa­nied by a note­wor­thy shift in the rela­tion between body and frame, as it appears that the for­mer is no longer sub­ject­ed to the lim­i­ta­tions of the lat­ter, but is shown capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing its own space. Again, if the focus on the numer­ous acts of self-inflict­ed tor­ture recalls horror's fas­ci­na­tion for the spec­ta­cle of the body in pain, de Van's film dis­places the sig­nif­i­cance of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion from the visu­al excess induced by such a spec­ta­cle to the poten­tial for self-trans­for­ma­tion that aris­es from this seem­ing­ly enclosed space. Con­se­quent­ly, the idea of entrap­ment and the freez­ing of the action usu­al­ly con­nect­ed to the tech­nique of the close-up are negat­ed in favor of the estab­lish­ment of a space where the trans­formed body can freely express its unique­ness.

In Deleuze and the Cin­e­mas of Per­for­mance, Ele­na del Río has not­ed that the on-screen spec­ta­cle of the female body need not be con­sid­ered as the sim­ple objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of a char­ac­ter by the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus, but should instead be per­ceived as carv­ing out a space with­in the fic­tion for the body to escape still­ness and pro­duce its own mean­ing by allow­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ty to emerge:

[…] spec­ta­cle does arrest nar­ra­tive, but such arrest­ing by no means inhibits the force of the body. If any­thing, it favors the unleash­ing of that force by free­ing the body from the tyran­ny and the rigid­i­ty of nar­ra­tive require­ments. Spec­ta­cle in this sense is no longer a framed view or fetish, for it indeed becomes an active­ly dis­lo­cat­ing or deform­ing force (del Río 33; my empha­sis).

A sim­i­lar process is at work in the scene where Esther is cut­ting and eat­ing pieces of her skin; the frame does not con­sti­tute a lim­i­ta­tion to the expres­sion of the character’s unique­ness any­more, but rather con­veys the idea of lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with cor­po­re­al trans­for­ma­tion. This unique con­nec­tion between body and frame is strength­ened in anoth­er scene, towards the end of the film, where we see Esther half naked, look­ing at her reflec­tion in a stand­ing mir­ror. Her face and body are cov­ered in blood and her body is shot in very unusu­al, ani­mal-like pos­tures as she is seen crouch­ing and arch­ing her back the way a feline would. If the mir­ror in this scene acts as a sec­ondary frame, its pur­pose is not to increase the character's entrap­ment with­in the fic­tion, as it usu­al­ly does, but to cre­ate a space where the body can freely per­form out­side a pre-estab­lished frame of moral con­duct.

In this respect, it is inter­est­ing to note that the ver­ti­cal lines of the mir­ror recall the ver­ti­cal­i­ty that char­ac­ter­izes Esther's work envi­ron­ment, with the shots on the tall glass build­ings at the begin­ning of the film. Where­as the intro­duc­tion of ver­ti­cal­i­ty in these shots serves to con­vey the character's entrap­ment in a soci­ety ruled by work and social norms of con­duct, the lines of the mir­ror do not enclose the body with­in a world of rules and reg­u­la­tions, but carves out a space with­in the fic­tion for the character’s sub­jec­tiv­i­ty to emerge and take con­trol of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In so doing, “[…] the body is shown capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing its own frames through its pow­er of affec­tion and expres­sion […]” (del Río 86), so that the frame does not act against the eman­ci­pa­tion of the body but is instead an ally in its quest for seek­ing mean­ing beyond tra­di­tion­al means of self-expres­sion.

This arti­cle wished to bring out the influ­ence of hor­ror cin­e­ma in Mari­na de Van's film by show­ing how it address­es the genre as a set of visu­al (the wound­ed body, the pres­ence of blood and scars) and tech­ni­cal (the use of the close-up) ele­ments that can be manip­u­lat­ed in order to lead to new inter­pre­ta­tions of the body. In so doing, the film places the trans­for­ma­tion­al capac­i­ties of the body at the cen­ter of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, as it presents skin as an inscrib­able sur­face whose ever-chang­ing appear­ance is the visu­al expres­sion of the main character’s evo­lu­tion and her desire to rid her­self of the social and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties that trap her body.

If hor­ror con­sti­tutes a visu­al and the­mat­ic foun­da­tion for the unset­tling images that form the nar­ra­tive, the arti­cle sug­gest­ed that the true sig­nif­i­cance of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion was to be found beyond the lim­its of the genre. Indeed, the mise-en-scène nev­er mim­ics horror's cod­i­fied sce­nar­ios, but instead seeks to deflect them by decon­struct­ing some of their found­ing ele­ments. Mark­ing her body is the only way for Esther to exist in a soci­ety where “[f]lesh has become non-felt, non-expe­ri­enced [and where] we have come to mis­trust our sens­es, our pas­sion, our incli­na­tion, our feel­ings […]” (Bernas and Dakhlia 74; my trans­la­tion). Because it has always con­sid­ered skin as a sur­face that could be manip­u­lat­ed and trans­formed, hor­ror stands as the best-suit­ed genre to con­vey Esther's vital need to exper­i­ment with her body. How­ev­er, with its rework­ing of the genre’s con­ven­tions, the film is nev­er a pris­on­er of this ref­er­en­tial frame, as it gen­er­ates a space with­in the fic­tion for the body’s trans­for­ma­tion­al pow­ers to hap­pen time and again.  The filmed body can nev­er be assigned a clear mean­ing, as it is tra­versed by unguard­ed impuls­es that set a vari­ety of raw and unmedi­at­ed cor­po­re­al images in motion. These images engage the spec­ta­tor at a vis­cer­al lev­el, but they nev­er allow for a safe res­o­lu­tion or a finite under­stand­ing of the body on-screen. Instead, we are left amidst a world of pow­er­ful and per­sis­tent sen­sa­tions, each one of them allud­ing to the tran­sient nature of this body.[5]

Works Cited

Bernas, Steven and Jamil Dakhlia. La Chair à l'image. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2006. Print.

Beugnet, Mar­tine. Cin­e­ma and Sen­sa­tion: French Film and the Art of Trans­gres­sion. Car­bon­dale: South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. Print.

Bogue, Ronald. Deleuze on Cin­e­ma. New York & Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2003. Print.

Del Río, Ele­na. Deleuze and the Cin­e­mas of Per­for­mance. Edin­burgh: Edin­burgh Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 2008. Print.

Dufour, Éric. Le Ciné­ma d'horreur et ses fig­ures. Paris: PUF, 2006. Print.

Mas­su­mi, Bri­an. “The Auton­o­my of Affect.” Cul­tur­al Cri­tique 31 (Autumn 1995): 83-109. Print.

Palmer, Tim. Bru­tal Inti­ma­cy. Ana­lyz­ing Con­tem­po­rary French Cin­e­ma. Mid­dle­town, CT: Wes­leyan Press, 2011. Print.

---. “Style and Sen­sa­tion in the Con­tem­po­rary French Cin­e­ma of the Body.” Jour­nal of Film and Video 58.3: 22-32. Print.

Rouy­er, Philippe. “Entre­tien: Mari­na de Van. Le corps-objet.” Posi­tif 502 (décem­bre 2002): 28-31. Print.

---. Le Ciné­ma gore: une esthé­tique du sang, Paris: Cerf, 1997. Print.

Films Cited

Dans ma peau. Dir. Mari­na de Van. Édi­tions Mont­par­nasse, 2004. Film.


[1] See Palmer, Tim. “Style and Sen­sa­tion in the Con­tem­po­rary French Cin­e­ma of the Body.” Jour­nal of Film and Video 58.3: 22-32. Print.; Palmer, Tim. “Under Your Skin : Mari­na de Van and the Con­tem­po­raryFrench ciné­ma du corps.” Stud­ies in French Cin­e­ma. 6.3 (2006): 171-81. Print.; Palmer, Tim. “In the Skin of Mari­na de Van.” Bru­tal Inti­ma­cy. Analysing Con­tem­po­rary French Cin­e­ma. Mid­dle­town, CT: Wes­leyan. 2011: 78-88. Print.

[2] In an inter­view she gave for the the­atri­cal release of Dans ma peau, Mari­na de Van men­tioned the impor­tance of light­ing in the film and explained that it played an instru­men­tal part in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the body on screen. She said: “I chose a type of light­ing that would make ele­ments stand out - what's humid or sol­id, what's shiny or matt - which brings us back to the idea of mat­ter (la matière)” (Rouy­er, “Style and Sen­sa­tion” 29; my trans­la­tion).

[3] In one scene of the film, Esther is seen rush­ing out of her office to go hide in a dark lock­er room of the com­pa­ny she works at, so that she can give in to her desire of cut­ting her new­ly sewn wound. In anoth­er scene, Esther is seen press­ing a knife against her leg while at a busi­ness meet­ing in a restau­rant, unable to resist the urge to “play” with her skin.

[4] It is inter­est­ing to note that Esther's body move­ments in this scene act as a coun­ter­point to the rigid posi­tion of her body when­ev­er we see her in her work envi­ron­ment. This con­trast serves to high­light the two con­cep­tions of the body that are at work with­in the film: the con­trolled and san­i­tized body of mod­ern-day soci­ety and the aso­cial, abnor­mal body of unmedi­at­ed dri­ves that comes to define Esther.

[5] The last shot of the film points out the impos­si­bil­i­ty to assign the body a clear mean­ing, as Esther is seen lying on a bed, star­ing blankly at the cam­era. The track­ing out move­ment rein­forces the uncer­tain­ty sur­round­ing the out­come of Esther’s extreme exper­i­men­ta­tion with her body.


This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.