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Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (Hélène Angel) 1999


    The first feature from French director Hélène Angel, Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is a searing and unforgettable family drama, that’s decidedly not for timid viewers. It presents a volatile portrait of domestic life in which relatives seem equally likely to hit or hug each other at any moment. From the start of the film, one suspects the worst might happen, and even the tamer incidents here; such as a gun being pulled at the family’s gathering, fill the audience with a palpable sense of dread. Compounding these fears is the decision to tell much of the tale from the prospective of two young girls, one of who narrates at the beginning of the film, “We were happy. We felt safe. Then Dad came.” These children understand more about their elders’ actions than one might expect, and they seem to possess an innate ability to detect emotional disturbance and lies that the rest of the family seems to have willingly suppressed. The fleeting moments of togetherness that this household shares seem to be overwhelmed by their desperate attempts at denial since these relatives refuse to examine the pronounced problems that exist in each other. The blindness that love causes has devastating effects here, and the rifts that exist between the three brothers in the story’s center at the start of this uncompromising film, only deepen as the film progresses and their past floats closer to the surface.


    For a debut film, Skin of Man, Heart of Beast feels unusually assured. The pastoral scenery belies the ugliness of the human drama that unfolds on it. Audiences are so used to settings in films that reflect characters’ states of mind, that to not use that kind of  visual cue places us in the same betrayed, confused state that the children in this family must feel. All of the acting here is uniformly stellar. Not a single performance feels the least bit showy, and even the turns by the cast’s children contribute to the feel that we’re really watching a family fall apart. The eruptions of violence, when they do occur, never fail to shock, even if they were apparent and inevitable from the film’s start. If the film’s outbursts didn’t feel as obscene as they do, however, we might be able to grow comfortable with them, and that would be more disturbing than any surprising jolt might be. As the movie rotates its point of view among the family members, it never loses the even-headedness that dominates the film, but somehow still manages to convey each character’s unique viewpoint. Clearly, we’re in the hands of a skilled director here. If the vociferous catharsis of the ending tries a bit too determinedly to put a happy face on the film’s events (especially in light of the opening narration’s revelation that one year later, young Aurelie was still mute) its particular manipulations are infinitely preferable to the forced bathos at the end of emotionally simpler films like The Son’s Room or A Beautiful Mind. Administering its conflicts with equal measures of ferocity and tenderness, Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is a family drama that never pulls a punch, for better or worse.


* * * 


Jeremy Heilman