Poison of Truth: Taboo and Abject Experience in the Films of Marina de Van, 1996-2002

“…filth and the sacred are adjacent to each other.”

-Letter from Julia Kristeva to Catherine Clement, May 1, 1997

“…à la limite du réel, mais pas en tant que choc, ni dans le fantastique, mais peut être dans le malaise.”

-Marina de Van, 2002

Taboo and the abject emerge in the cinema of Marina de Van throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s -a taboo being an act forbidden by a particular social group and avoided in conversation between members of that group, and the abject being an instance of disgust. De Van’s films and collaborations with Francois Ozon are unique among her contemporaries in that they will often move past simple portrayal of taboo and provocation of disgust and toward a onscreen dissection of the two.

De Van’s arrival to cinema coincides with the emergence of ‘New French Extremity,’ the de facto ‘movement’ of transgressive films produced in France at the turn of the twenty-first century (de facto in that all seemed to have similar content as far as images of violence and sexuality were concerned but did not seem to have any unifying sociopolitical element). Most literature on Extremity from the latter half of the 1990s seems to favor Catherine Breillat, Philippe Grandrieux, and Gaspar Noe over De Van, who often appears as a sidenote. An exception is Tim Palmer’s 2006 article on De Van which included her film Dans ma peau (2002) -together with Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Breillat’s Romance (1999), Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and others- among what he called ‘cinema du corps,’ a corpus of films that dealt “frankly and graphically with the body, and corporeal transgressions.”

A perfunctory list of keystone films of New French Extremity would be disparate at best and ultimately unfair to the filmmakers themselves. There was never a strong ideological connective tissue, for instance, between such diverse filmmakers as Denis or Dumont: Trouble Every Day and Twentynine Palms indicate a newfound interest among established filmmakers for bodily transgressions, whereas De Van seems to have had a propensity for such subjects from the beginning. While Breillat’s portrayal of sexual content in Romance is relatively explicit vis-a-vis that in her Tapage nocturne (1979) and Sale comme une ange (1991), it is in keeping with what have been her ideas regarding female sexuality for decades. Thus it would make sense to approach De Van’s films up through Dans ma peau as a corpus of works rather than situate Dans ma peau as a flagship film in a loosely-defined ‘movement.’ Extremity is merely a useful shorthand.

De Van’s films are a vessel through which she evinces numerous taboos. In her own films and her performances in two films for Ozon (to which she she also contributed writing), De Van routinely explicates events relating to bodily functions, sex, and incest (‘breaking taboos’) in both onscreen action and dialogue. A scene between De Van and Evelyne Dandry in Ozon’s Sitcom (1998), alludes to her doing so: De Van’s character Sophie blatantly suggests to Mother that Father is a homosexual. Mother responds. “You’re filled with poison,” and De Van answers: “It’s the poison of truth!” The viewer might keep in mind the social context in which De Van explores her subjects, since her films are most often set a middle-to-upper-class world. De Van herself is the daughter of a musicologist and a lawyer, and a graduate of the University of Paris and La Femis. Her characters work in white collar professions, own property, engage in polite conversation, and can afford luxuries such as high-end clothing and psychiatrists (in her short film Alias from 1999, a woman who works for an upper-class family emulates their lifestyle by wearing their clothes). In viewing De Van’s portrayal of taboo, one may or may not consider Susie Orbach’s notion of the female body as a commodity, the condition of bodies in De Van’s cinema thus functioning as a kind of statement of displacement or discomfort with a relatively privileged social positions.

bien sous primal scene
Three siblings witness the primal scene in Bien sous tous rapports (Marina de Van, 1996).

In recent years, the word ‘abject’ has entered the popular lexicon among Anglophones and acquired several arbitrary meanings. While the word is used popularly -somewhat carelessly- as an adjective interchangeable with ‘extreme’ or ‘severe’ (“abject poverty”), and in other instances used mistakenly as an adjective meaning ‘objective’ (vis-a-vis ‘subjective’), here one should think of ‘abject’ as Julia Kristeva did in her 1980 work Pouvres d’horreur. Kristeva’s definition of the abject and understanding of the abject’s bearing on the human psyche are complex, but suffice it to say that for the purpose of interpreting the human experiences in De Van’s cinema, one can describe the abject as Kristeva did in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffman Baruch: “Abjection is something that disgusts you, for example, you see something rotting and you want to vomit -it is an extremely strong feeling that is at once somatic and symbolic, which is above all a revolt against an external menace from which one wants to distance oneself, but of which one has the impression that it may menace us from the inside.” The protagonists in De Van’s films often experience the abject in that they engage in and feel repulsed by acts that are meant to register dramatically as ‘disgusting,’ but who also themselves the site and source of their own disgust.

The viewer can interpret much of De Van’s depictions of taboo and abject experience through the lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body, which acknowledges the body as the only vessel though which we experience the world -visually, aurally, tactilely, and so on. De Van describes the nature of corporeal experience of her character in 2002 film Dans ma peau in a manner similar to Merleau-Ponty: “…if the body becomes an object of doubt there are no more connections. Everything vanishes. Because all the concrete situations in which my body is involved become dubious and don’t concern me. Because the body is the anchor in relationships [and] in the world.” Further, the script for Dans ma peau originates in a childhood injury where De Van was run over by a car. She has described the resulting injury (her bone protruding from her leg) as Merleau-Ponty might have described a steak: “I saw my leg as just another object.” It would make sense, then, that De Van often appears as the protagonist in her own films, due to what she described as a ‘narcissistic curiosity’ about her own body. The characters written and/or played by De Van -specifically those in Bien sous tous rapports (1996), Retention (1997), Regarde la mer (directed by Francois Ozon, 1997), Sitcom, Psy Show (1999), and Dans ma peau– extrapolate taboo subject matter and the body’s variations of abject experience by way of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘double sensations’: If one hand touches another hand, each hand is at once ‘touching’ and ‘being touched.’ Thus the way in which the body experiences sensations brought upon itself -such as mutilation, physical violence, or paralysis- is distinct from the way in which it experiences the same sensations taking place outside of the body. You cut another body, another body cuts you, you witness a body cutting another body, you cut your own body. These are four different corporeal experiences of the same thing: a body being cut. Yet the last instance is fundamentally different from the first three in that it is the only experience wherein the body is simultaneously ‘cutting’ and ‘being cut.’

Taboo

The incest taboo forms a significant portion of De Van’s oeuvre, particularly in scenes in Bien sous tous rapports and Sitcom. In the former, a daughter and her two brothers (played by De Van and her two biological brothers, Adrien and Thomas) watch their mother fallate their father. This is after the family watches and critiques video footage of the daughter fellating her boyfriend. The latter alludes to incest between Sophie and her brother Nicolas (again played by her biological brother Adrien) in a scene where they sit together nude in a bathtub. Sophie asks Nicolas to describe the experience of having sex with Mother, and is later inspired to proposition Father.

sitcom bathtub
Biological siblings on- and offscreen in Sitcom (Francois Ozon, 1998).

One should know that the behavior in Dans ma peau is not rooted in any one source “like a unhappy childhood or dissatisfying sexuality,” in De Van’s words. The clinical term for Esther’s condition would be Non-Suicidal Self Injury, or NSSI. Self-injury among adults differs from that among adolescents in that it is most often not associated with suicidal behavior (despite her compulsion, Esther in Dans ma peau doesn’t betray any signs of suicidal or risk-taking behavior), and is often understood as a source of distraction from distinctively adult responsibilities.  The portrayal of NSSI in Dans ma peau lends itself to taboo in that self-injuring adults typically experience shame as a result of their actions (‘it’s something young people do’), and therefore perform the act in private and hidden from public view.

Between 2010 and 2013, experiments conducted by Harvard psychologists suggested that there are emotional benefits to NSSI. The experiments revealed that self-injurers would endure physical pain for a longer time period than those in control groups. While both groups reported feeling relief after a physically painful experience, self-injurers reported what the researchers called ‘pain offset relief,’ or a feeling of euphoria after a painful stimulus, and over time the self-injurers paradoxically associated pain with relief. Dans ma peau portrays the ‘trancelike’ relief state associated with self-injury by cutting between a medium closeup shot of De Van’s face staring offscreen and out-of-focus shots of the middle distance from her POV, suggesting a euphoric or excited mental state and the giddiness of anticipation that is symptomatic of a compulsion.

dans ma peau euphoria
Euphoria in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002).

Dans ma peau also appeals to the viewer’s instinct to conceal acts considered taboo. A scene that takes place about one third into the film features a group of men attempting to throw Esther into a swimming pool. It is at this point that De Van makes it clear that the viewer must be complicit with the protagonist’s actions -we do not want her wound to be discovered but rather for the narrative to continue without intervention from the supporting characters. Further, two distinct scenes depict Esther cutting herself in hotel rooms, narratively suggesting an adulterous affair. After her first hotel room session, she stages a car accident in order to account for her new injuries to her husband.

Abject

De Van’s cinema addresses abject experience through a Freudian-Kristevan collapse of the oral and anal (food and scatology, respectively), paralysis and the absence of limbs, and pleasure derived from self-injury and mutilation in adults. The patient (Jean-Francois Gallotte) in Psy Show recalls eating lunch while at work, comparing the experience of eating in the cafeteria food to eating waste: “…I didn’t like the cafeteria food. They made us eat filth. I once took some garbage out of the bin. It was rotten, with a bug in it. I hate it right there at the table, to prove it was no different.” Sasha (Sasha Hails) in Regarde la mer is taken aback when she sees Tatiana (De Van) lap up her plate when she finishes eating. The viewer later sees the inevitable result of Tatiana’s eating in a scene where Sasha discovers Tatiana’s feces left in her toilet. This is after Sasha has unknowingly ingested the same feces orally by brushing with a tarnished toothbrush. In another dinner scene, Tatiana provokes Sasha to imagine the abject during a conversation about childbirth by mentioning tearing that can occur between the rectum and the vagina: “Some people shit out the pussy afterwards.” Feces is largely the subject of De Van’s Retention, in which she portrays a woman sauntering around her apartment and refusing to rid herself of her own waste. Because fecal matter is something that one typically removes from one’s body and then immediately removes from one’s sight, De Van views it as an object in the world interchangeable with anything else. Human waste in Retention, like the flayed pieces of skin in Dans ma peau, is kept close and preserved.

regarde la mer eating
Eating in Regarde la mer (Francois Ozon, 1997).

De Van’s characters experience the abject in the form of displacement of bodies or paralysis to the body. In Psy Show, a patient enters an office, lies down supine on a cot, and begins to speak to the psychiatrist (Philippe Laudenbach), who all the while periodically repositions his chair across the room. The patient notices this and eventually insists that the psychiatrist is moving his chair, and the psychiatrist sits stoically, shaking his head. While the film at first seems to be about a doctor gaslighting his patient, the manner in which he does so brings about a disorientation that is often part and parcel with disgust. A shot later in the film depicts the patient’s forearm and hand reaching out into an empty space is if to grasp matter that isn’t there. The patient’s experience is abject in that there is no body where the patient expects to see a body. There is an expectation that the psychiatrist is there listening, but he is not.

psy show phantom limb
Psy Show (Marina de Van, 1999).

An early scene in Dans ma peau features Esther waking up to realize that her arm is incapacitated. She must move it with her other arm. One can compare this scene to another in Sitcom featuring Sophie, who experiences paralysis from the waist down after jumping from a high window. When Sophie’s boyfriend provides oral sex, she tells him ‘I feel nothing’ even though sex organs are not connected to nervous system. Though brief, these scenes both feature De Van’s examination of abject state inherent in losing a limb and in the inevitable decay of the body, the inverse of William James’ studies of amputees in the 1880s. In certain cases, James’ patients stated feeling the limb weeks, months, or years after amputation, and would often forget momentarily that an amputated hand or foot was missing and carry out physical movements they performed repeatedly before those limbs’ amputation.

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The viewer will notice De Van’s contribution of dialogue to Regarde la mer. While that film’s structure resembles a roman noir or film noir, the film explores both the abject and taboo that exist on the periphery of the narrative in a scene halfway through the film where Tatiana asks Sasha to describe the experience of childbirth -specifically the physical pain experienced. Rather than being repulsed by the abject, Sasha smiles while describing it:

Tatiana: Did it hurt?

Sasha: Of course.

Tatiana: Did you have an epidural?

Sasha: No.

Tatiana: Why not?

Sasha: It was my first. I wanted to really experience the pain, know how it felt.

Tatiana: Did you like it?

Sasha: Yes, I think I did.

Dismemberment and decay are central iconographically in Dans ma peau. In what is arguably the film’s best-known scene, Esther attends a business dinner where she pounds three glasses of wine in order not to be rude to her clients. The alcohol instigates the compulsion. The viewer then sees images of Esther’s disembodied forearm and hand on the dinner table, recalling Bunuel’s disembodied hand in El angel exterminador (1962). In a sense, the film depicts the arm as Merleau-Ponty may have, transforming it into an object indistinguishable from silverware or food.

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To a degree, Dans ma peau uses the film language of pornography as a means of portraying abject experience. Consider the film’s first hotel room scene, while Esther has checked in in order to escape her business dinner. The film’s framing of her face against her arm and leg is the same as it would be against another body. She ‘fucks’ herself. The scene ends with her own blood spraying on her face, not unlike what the viewer sees at the conclusion of filmed heterosexual sex. By that rationale, the film also compares self-mutilation to other taboo act, masturbation, both implying that she derives sexual satisfaction from the act.

dans ma peau climax
Climax in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002).

Esther at once enjoys and is repulsed by the act of self-mutilation. A scene late in Dans ma peau where she sifts through her wallet in front of an ATM and finds pieces of her flayed skin that gave blackened and died dramatizes her repulsion. The film holds on a closeup of her face. Suddenly aware of her body’s inevitable decay, she is saddened and disgusted. Most sociological and philosophical studies of disgust (and most dramatic portrayals of it) associate the feeling with the onset of decay or contamination in organic matter. This scene extrapolates the ubiquitous though practically invisible presence of infection and decay in everyday life, which is no less ubiquitous than using an ATM machine. Just as De Van’s character did in Retention, Esther confronts her own organic matter, implying similar confrontations that happen on a routine basis: The source of most dust in one’s house is from dead skin cells, viruses and bacteria are transferred from person to person by placing hands on doorknobs, and so on.

dans ma peau disgust
Disgust in Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002)

Esther’s experience of disgust and pleasure simultaneously onscreen mirrors those in reality. An experiment at UCSF in 1983 recorded the heart rate and hand temperature of human subjects while they were asked to relive past experiences that incited one of six specific emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and disgust. The experiment found that disgust is the only emotion of the six that decreases both your heart rate and your hand temperature. While there is no direct correlation between heart rate and blood pressure, the two tend to rise and fall together, and therefore interpretations of the experiment state not just “the feeling of disgust can lower one’s blood pressure,” but also “the feeling of disgust is actually pleasurable relative to some other feelings.”

Disgust, therefore, is in its way a key to watching De Van’s cinema. Her films reveal indirectly why the viewer may care to watch incestuous allusions in Bien sous tous rapports, scatologies in Retention, or decay in Dans ma peau. Abject and forbidden images seem to be woven through with euphoric components associated with physical pain and disgust -which begin and end with the human body as the platform for both their production and consumption. They are, as Kristeva would have it, cathartic experiences.

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