In My Skin

dir. Marina de Van

Plays Tues Feb 3-Thurs Feb 12 at the Grand Illusion.
For those who may be inclined to see In My Skin, allow me to send up a warning flare: You will not enjoy the experience. This doesn't mean the film is bad or unwatchable, for it's not (bad, that is; unwatchable is another matter), but what it does mean is that Marina de Van's little picture is a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Brutal and repulsive, the picture is intent on damaging its viewers, and for the most part it succeeds. Put another way, you may very well vomit while watching it. If so, there is nothing to be ashamed of; vomiting may be de Van's desired response.

The film opens in a deceptively tame fashion, with Esther (de Van--starring, as well as directing), a youngish Parisian about to make the leap into domesticity with her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas). Eerily thin and pale, lips forced into poutiness by a protruding upper row of teeth, Esther works for a publicity firm, spending her days writing bland copy in a bland environment. It is a distracting enough life for Esther, safe and fairly uneventful, and she seems more than content in it--at least until she receives a rather large gash in her leg.

Where did the gash come from? An accident at a party, which eventually lands her in the emergency room. I say eventually because for a while Esther doesn't notice the wound; oblivious to the pain, she drinks and dances the evening away, and it isn't until much later, on a trip to the salle de bains, that she notices her injury. This apparent disconnect between her nerve endings and her consciousness at first confuses Esther, but soon that confusion gives way to fascination, and then obsession. And it is this obsession that lures Esther into picking up a knife and slicing some deli meat from her arm.

Because the film is bloody and stomach-turning, In My Skin's grace is all the more startling. The director, who has collaborated in the past with François Ozon, has considerable talent, especially when it comes to the film's gore. The picture is explicit, to be sure, but the elegance in which de Van has framed that explicitness borders on romantic--and makes suffering seem a worthy endeavor. When, about halfway through the film, Esther hides herself in a hotel room so that she can cut and devour herself in private, de Van's camera frames much of the action as if it were two people making love, with Esther's limb framed in the foreground, becoming a dark and blurry shape, much like the back of a person's head. It is a surprisingly tender and gentle scene, refreshing in its intelligence and nearly heartwarming--that is, if you can manage to forget for a moment that she is eating her own flesh. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Japanese Story

dir. Sue Brooks

Opens Fri Jan 30.
Japanese Story begins by giving us a brief look at the life of an Australian geologist named Sandy (Toni Collette). Her mode of existence is far from elegant; Sandy is a brute, she behaves like someone who has been brought up in a barracks rather than a good home. She doesn't much care for her personal appearance, eats canned food, smokes, drinks bad coffee, and focuses most of her attention on her work. If she were a man, she would be in desperate need of "a lady's touch"; as she is a woman, she is doomed to become what all mothers fear their ambitious daughters will become: a spinster.

One day her boss sends her to a remote part of northwestern Australia to accompany a potential Japanese client, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), to a massive mining project in the desert. Hiromitsu is elegant, slender, soft-spoken--a man whose composure and manner of greeting are the products of good breeding. Predictably, the initial encounters between the raw woman and the cultivated man are antagonistic. Predictably, the opposites soon attract, and a love affair is established under the desert sun.

One way to read this part of the film is this: Japanese capital (represented by the cultivated man) has its way with Australian natural resources (represented by the raw woman). Such a reading is by no means outlandish; it is indeed made very apparent by an important boat scene that occurs midway through the film. It's also made apparent by the fact of Sandy's profession (geology) and the bigness of her body, which is emphasized/contrasted by the sleek body of the Japanese businessman. He falls in love with both the country of Australia and Sandy's body, whose big butt he admires as much as the big geography that opens up to him.

Then something bad happens to Hiromitsu and, consequently, something bad happens to the rest of the film. Japanese Story, which as one critic has pointed out should be called Australian Monogatari, begins as a beautifully photographed romance that is sustained by Collette's professional performance. After the accident near the final third of the film, however, it becomes a bad melodrama that drags on and on. The change from one mode to the other is sudden and disastrous, and what would have easily turned out to be a charming little film becomes a tiresome piece of utter nonsense. CHARLES MUDEDE

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