Esther (Marina de Van, who also directed the film) is a young urban professional woman. At a party, she goes out into the dark garden and trips, falling and tearing her trousers. Only several hours later does she realize that she has seriously wounded her leg. This is either the beginning of, or the first evidence of, a radical shift in her relationship with her own body.

The doctor who stitches the wound is surprised that she had not felt injury, and tests her for neurological damage, finding none. She starts cutting at the wound, refusing to let the skin close. Her boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas) and her friend Sandrine are both concerned and repelled by her behavior. She experiences a kind of separation from her body, and it appears that her mutilation of it is an effort to re-anchor herself in her own flesh.

At an important business dinner with clients, she drinks too much and suddenly experiences her left arm as separate from her body, a severed object that threatens to act on its own. She has to stop her left hand from playing with her food and, holding her arm on her lap, she cuts it as if to make it feel, to use pain to reattach it. To explain away the damage she has done to herself, she has to fake a car accident.

Eventually the compulsion exceeds her ability to control it, and she enters a crescendo of mutilation. She hurts her body with calm, detached interest, cutting her face, attempting to tan a piece of skin she has removed from herself, even eating her own flesh. At the end of the film she is alone, in some kind of new state that is not explained.


This film is shocking but not sensationalistic. The damage Esther does to her body is presented as something not quite the same as violence. The film is more about her mind than her body, which she comes to perceive, in a kind of radical Cartesianism, as an object separate from herself, something to be investigated and controlled, the skin peeled back, its responses tested with sharp objects. Her body seems to have rebelled against her and become, paradoxically, a threat to her identity. The dinner scene powerfully reveals this: Esther's professional social persona is doubly at odds with her interior self--both the private mind and, more unusually, the material self enclosed by her skin.

The film refuses easy explanations, such as past abuse, diagnosable psychopathology, neurological damage, or hysteria, though the film allows for contemplation and discussion of all of these. The story does not overtly involve an eating disorder, but there is much in it that is deeply relevant to this topic. De Van is more interested in the relationship between self and body in a wider philosophical sense. (Her commentary on the DVD is enlightening.) The cinematography, with its increasing use of divided images and split screens, effectively mirrors Esther's split identity.

This film challenges the assumption that it is automatic or natural to identify with, care about, and care for our bodies. In Esther's case, the term "self-mutilation" is a misnomer: her body has come to be not self, and we are left at the end contemplating other ways to understand embodied identity.


In French, with English subtitles

Primary Source

Wellspring Media