Through a Lens DARKLY

After watching Dark Touch (2013), an unusual Irish horror film, I wanted to know more about its French director, Marina de Van, with whose work I was otherwise unfamiliar. Or so I thought.

It turns out I had seen her (as an actress) in a short, 52-minute film by young French director François Ozon, called See the Sea (1997), released theatrically with an even shorter Ozon feature (A Summer Dress, 15 minutes) made in 1996. See the Sea was a real shocker, telling the story of Sasha, a young mother living in a small coastal town with her baby. They cross paths with Tatiana, a young hippie-ish woman (played by de Van) who pitches her tent on their property. The film is infused with a sense of dread and foreboding more than fulfilled in its surprise conclusion.

With later films like 8 Women and Swimming Pool to his credit, Ozon has since become a major cinematic presence, but he began his career at the same time and at the same school of cinema studies as de Van, which explains their early teamwork. Her career, though, has proceeded more slowly, and today, she has only four feature films, several shorts, a few turns as actress and/or writer in other filmmaker’s projects to her credit.

De Van’s first major directorial effort, In My Skin (’02), set the emotional and visceral template for ensuing projects. She also wrote the screenplay, about a young woman (de Van) who, after accidentally slicing up her leg at a party, discovers a penchant for cutting herself and nibbling fragments of her own skin. Disturbing to the max, In My Skin is reminiscent of early David Cronenberg work — his absorption with bodily processes in Shivers, Rabid, The Fly, The Brood and Dead Ringers.

Whereas Cronenberg’s works were clearly horror films (though more graphic and sophisticated than most), de Van’s films defy such easy ranking. In My Skin traces its protagonist’s descent into madness and self-destruction, and while cause-and-effect are not shown explicitly, it’s clear the filmmaker is touching on issues of gender roles and alienation. Despite its gruesomeness, In My Skin is plainly artistic exploration, not exploitation.

Don’t Look Back, released seven years on (’09), is de Van’s best so far. Elegantly filmed and directed, starring two of Europe’s most beautiful and talented actresses, Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, the screenplay (by de Van) is another intellectual, emotional mind-twister. An accomplished nonfiction author, Jeanne (Marceau) is intent on writing her first novel, based on her childhood and its maze of lost or distorted memories.

Discouraged by all (her publisher, her mother and her husband), Jeanne grows frustrated by degrees, markedly as things and people around her begin (quite literally) to take different forms and shapes. Fleeing Paris for Italy to find out who she is, Jeanne herself assumes another face (Bellucci) but with the same identity. Italy seems to hold the secrets of the past, but again everyone and everything about her grow ever more fluid.

Both Jeannes seem haunted by the same young girl, even as their identities and spheres ebb and flow from one to the other. The transition from one actress to another is strikingly effective — once, Jeanne transposed into half-Marceau, half-Bellucci. There is even a segment out of Alice in Wonderland as Bellucci, exploring her past, morphs into a tiny Alice among outsized furniture.

Don’t Look Back is far more than visual tricks and mind puzzles, though. Sometimes the plot is maddeningly oblique (for instance, why are Bellucci’s legs so hideously scarred and malformed at times?), the basic quest to uncover the past and its deliberately concealed secrets engages clearly and effectively.

Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci are both superb, a reflection of their very real talent and a tribute to de Van’s direction. Her plots may be bizarre, but the woman always brings out compelling performances.

The same is true in Dark Touch, de Van again as writer and director. Reminiscent of Carrie, but far darker and disturbing, the film focuses on Niamh, a 12-year-old girl (Missy Keating) who, after her parents and little brother suffer horrific deaths, goes to live with neighbors. Utilizing familiar horror tropes (she has kinetic powers), de Van explores issues of child abuse and its repercussions in ways even more disturbing than Stephen King’s seminal work.

Grim and unrelenting, Dark Touch is also intelligent and beautifully filmed, a thinking person’s horror film. We should expect nothing less from Marina de Van.

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