This is the second film from Marina de Van which pits a middle aged, pretty French woman against her mind, body and identity. It would seem de Van likes characters not at ease with living in their own skin.
She tackles the body/mind and identity/soul themes at as high a level as anyone, artfully exploring them in ways that can truly capture your attention. Her previous film, In My Skin, would almost be considered horror if it weren't for the fact that cutting, an ancient tradition showing loyalty to the gods, now seems normal in today's teen angst (and film enhanced) culture. De Van sidestepped the teen issue and brought greater weight by giving us a woman in her thirties who not only cut, but took her case study to a whole new level, eating her flesh and licking up her own blood, a literal reading of the self-destructive addict. Whereas that film was a hard, dark trip steeped in emotional preoccupation and the dark corridors of psychology, it made for a mesmerizing case study, nonetheless. It's a directorial debut I'll never forget, setting de Van's name as a high priority for any follow up.
The follow up is here, de Van finding two stellar, well-known actresses to pull off a new idea for body/mind identity exploration -- and add to that a character's belief that she's being manipulated through hidden reality and her family's deception. Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci each play Jeanne, a biographer aiming to change over to fiction and an apparently normal and loving wife and mother of two. Marceau plays Jeanne from the beginning of the story, Bellucci morphing into her half way through, which of course is a jolt to the system when no one else sees the change. Her mother, husband and children also turn unrecognizable, and even the furniture in the house travels to new locations. These things seem to happen very quickly and may allude to her recent writings, in which she's digging in her past in order to work this fiction out, or amnesia she experienced as an eight year-old.
Don't Look Back has an approach that's less sick than In My Skin, and certainly not horror, but rather a slow boiling mystery that gets into your head and has you grasping at straws at the film's device of identity.
What de Van does with interiors here is as fantastical as anything in In My Skin. Like that film, the story telling is at its best when Jeanne is trapped in several small rooms (the use of lighting and mirrors and reflections a recurring motif), as well as trapped in the meltdown of her own mind and body. The interiors, physical and mental, bring a claustrophobic feel, perfect for the stifling tension coming on this house. The creeped out soundtrack adds to the intensity, too, informing the insanity and disintegration the family goes through as Jeanne's transformation slowly tears her from them.
The story wraps up, but not in a nice little bow. In order for Jeanne to figure out what is happening, she'll return to her childhood and start again from there. In a sense, she's always been that little girl that's trapped in a woman's body, and that might be at the heart of what de Van seems interested in delving into. Some strands are left undeveloped in the end, but they're not the ones we care about the most -- we go from the surreal to the bizarre, but then there's way made for the poetic, too -- but a sense of brokenness will permeate the final frame.
If anything, Don't Look Back made me a firm believer in the strength of de Van as a filmmaker, and not just a one-hit wonder with In My Skin. I'm looking forward to what she does next as much as I looked forward to her second effort, and I'd happily add her name to any of the younger French directors getting known.