Rediscovering the Proper Female Self in Marina de Van’s ‘Dans ma peau’

Dans ma peau demonstrates the almost unacceptable but the most natural form of intimacy, namely the one with the proper body. Esther is incapable of feeling a very hurtful wound which triggers a ‘socially’ deviating urge to inflict herself with ceremonies of pain which she utterly enjoys and thereby rediscovers herself. From the penetrant destruction of her skin she suddenly builds up or rebuilds a relationship with her body and examines in how far it belongs to her and what she can do with it, the only love she may need is the love for her proper self, which is incomprehensible the way she enables it for other people especially including her boyfriend. Esther revives herself by interrupting the socially and bureaucratically imposed numbness and mechanism, choosing to ultimately perform her identity, even if it hurts or because it hurts, but not her, as she liberates herself from her shackles, not suppressing her cravings anymore.

By revealing her newfound awakening of her proper body she brings her ‘best friend’ and colleague, her boyfriend and indirectly her work associates to their limits as they cannot take, accept or tolerate it, as ‘self-mutilation’ (in their words) is something they refuse to understand and cannot understand, but feel, which they totally fail to do. For Esther it is pure self-expression as others cannot relate to it as they may have lost their sense of self and the individual needs of their body.

The ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ in the scene where Esther caresses her face with a knife just leaves the viewer absolutely breathless, fascinated and oddly exposed to her. Her eyes are filled with a love that ‘needs’ to be and remain hidden or constantly justified, a despair that results out of it as the love for herself and her body which she physically but not mentally destroys, makes her addicted, it is a dead alley in many ways, but she lives it out until it does not work anymore. Never has she felt more alive than in these numerous moments of tearing herself apart, stabbing and eating her skin, her flesh, tasting and smelling her own blood, seeing it on her skin, not under it. She craves to observe what she is invisibly made of and devours herself where many people are disgusted by their proper anatomy and vulnerability. To get into the inside she needs to dig, scratch, cut her way through the outside where her real self is not truly situated, she wants to destroy the social construct, the looks, the functional robot in the industry, she craves to get to the core of herself. The coming-of-age of an adult woman digging into her fundamental roots.

The dehumanising pressure and the unnaturalism imposed on her are very well documented in the work-related dinner scene. During the constantly shallow argument exchange she just feels as if her body is falling apart into pieces as she forces herself to oppress, tame and introvert her proper self. Her body revolts itself against the obstacle of a predetermined role she cannot adapt herself to. With the lifeless arm lying on the table, parallel to the waking-up scene where her arm is numb as the weight of her body is symbolically oppressing it, the power relations and really destructive functions of her working environment are demonstrated, so the question is, who is really destructive, (self)abusive and lifeless here?

Esther is stared at, scrutinised and questioned with glances as if she was an unadjusted ‘other’, an object of opposition and exclusion. The more the meaningless dialogue goes on between her colleagues the more she feels the need to penetrate her body with a knife and a fork, to feel that she is still there, that it is her sitting there, that she needs to prove to herself that she is at least able to love herself as no one else can love her the way she can do it. There is an interesting similarity between her and Emma from I Am Love, where Emma rediscovers her own life forces through the act of eating, tasting, cutting and mixing the food on her plate and enjoying a sensual/sexual relationship with the cook of this food, Esther redefines herself and her humanness through her being a skin, a flesh that she can eat, by tasting, gnawing, cutting, stabbing herself, she is the cook and she is the food, which for her is very sensual, life-affirming and maybe sexual experience. Either way it is a form of re-awakening and breaking/counteracting the socially restrictive boundaries, expected role distributions and an act or a reaction in the form of self-preservation, in Esther’s case, literally, even though this may sound paradoxical, but not for her.

hand washing
Photo by Vova Krasilnikov on

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