Crawling Skin, Joyous School?

By Fernando F. Croce

Schizophrenia time. In a recent double-bill, I caught up with the intense, bound-to-be-controversial In My Skin back-to-back with the Jack Black rock comedy The School of Rock -- an endurance test in morbid, pathological horror followed by an exuberant headbanger's ball. That I liked both of them probably says more about me than about the films themselves.

Actually, "liked," is a misleading word for my reactions to Marina de Van's In My Skin -- "repulsed admiration" would be closer to the mark. Easily the queasiest French import since Haneke's The Piano Teacher, it is at times unwatchable (there were walkouts during my screening) but lacerating, fearless. I could not recommend it to anyone looking for fun, but I will never forget parts of it. De Van, the writer-director, also plays Esther, the main character, who one night during a swanky party trips in the backyard and slashes her leg in a scrap of metal. The gaping gash unhinges a seething fascination in her, and soon she is inflicting fresh wounds in her body. The movie follows her descent into self-mutilation and, finally, madness, with no clinical detail spared. Obviously, this ain't no Amelie.

Critics attempting to make sense of this woman's horrific obsession have evoked the two Davids of the Bizarre, Cronenberg and Lynch. De Van may have the fascination of the flesh of the former and the matter-of-fact gaze of the latter, but the film's concerns (the inexplicable detachment and self-eroticisation and destruction of the body) are her own. Flesh and blood (and the skin containing them) are the picture's subjects, ruthlessly sliced, smeared and puzzled over by de Van with suffocating intimacy. The film's most ambiguous aspect is the effect of the protagonist's obsession -- is she liberated or imprisoned by it? The showstopper (a fancy business dinner where the unbalanced heroine envisions her severed arm clutching at the food) is followed by a lengthy sequence of cutting and sucking skin that, despite the gore, is arguably the film's equivalent of a sex scene. And yet, the gruesomely tender release of the scene leads only to Esther's sense of entrapment, locked in the insanity of split screens and spiraling tilts.

The incoherency and pretentiousness of de Van -- a feral actress-writer better known for her collaborations with François Ozon (Sitcom, Under the Sand, 8 Women) -- are matched by her courage and obvious talent. Watching In My Skin is akin to attending a bizarre, virtuoso one-woman performance, as unpleasant as it is galvanizing. Not the definition of a good time for most people, perhaps, but who hasn't looked at their bodies and at least once seen more foe than friend?

Jack Black has no such problem with his body. Stubby, stocky and slobby, he barnstorms his way through cinema with the unself-conscious abandon of a drunken satyr. Whether playing half of the cult rock/comedy duo Tenacious D or just bouncing like a human pogo stick in roles in High Fidelity or Orange County, he is a comic virtuoso -- all spastic jabs, piercing shrieks, wiggling eyebrows and dancing eyes, yet everything coming together with the grace of Zero Mostel resurrected into Joe Cocker's body.

Black may have his defining role in The School of Rock as Dewey, a struggling rocker masquerading as a private school substitute teacher and molding a roomful of fifth-graders into a replacement rock band. His is a performance of unashamed bluster and ham, sustained with the generous, joyous physicality of an extended guitar riff. That's not to say Black is the whole show. His cyclonic energy is complemented by a supporting cast that includes the marvelous Joan Cusack as the school's jittery principal (and Stevie Nicks impersonator), not to mention the various kids -- no bunch of Mighty Ducks moppets but a batch of unsentimental, individualized characters with their own gifts and fears. In understanding how to integrate all these elements into a whole, director Richard Linklater reminds me of Leo McCarey's handling of such great Hollywood clowns as W.C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers in the 1930s.

Hold on -- Richard Linklater? The same Linklater of such indie landmarks as Slacker and Dazed and Confused, making a mainstream comedy? Fear not, purists, he has not sold out to "the man." Despite its conventional story and box-office appeal, the film continues Linklater's warm and sympathetic analysis of the expression of youth, bringing back the rebellious thrust of rock music. For all its feel-good comedy, it makes as many sharp points as Waking Life or Tape, his previous, more esoteric works. The School of Rock is among my happiest experiences at the movies this season. The loose-limbed buzz I got from it something every comedy nowadays promises but few deliver. I admire the rigor and artistic integrity of In My Skin, but I'm grateful to the humor and energy of The School of Rock. To paraphrase Dewey, it serves society by rocking.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on November 21, 2003.

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