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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

THE REFLECTING SKIN -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle




A stunningly beautiful film, Philip Ridley's 1990 psychological thriller THE REFLECTING SKIN (Film Movement Classics) is also stunningly weird.  His sweeping vistas of vast fields of wheat swaying in the breeze and dotted with rustic, rambling old houses may look like something out of Andrew Wyeth, but this twisted coming-of-age tale is pure rural American Gothic whose bright fascade hides a profound inner corruption.

We see it all through the eyes of eight-year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), who lives with his violently abusive mother Ruth (Sheila Moore) and feeble-minded father Luke (Duncan Fraser)--neither of whom is "all there"--behind an auto-repair garage with two rusty gas pumps. 

Ruth, who should be the subject of someone's psychiatric thesis, constantly complains about the smell of gasoline and grease, driving Luke to lose himself in cheap pulp magazines about vampires and such. It's touching to see how Seth gravitates toward his father, harmlessly lost in his pulp magazines, clearly out of his mind but comfortingly nonthreatening.


Growing up in the middle of nowhere is getting to Seth, too, and his playtime consists of things like inflating a live frog like a balloon so that he can leave it in the road and splatter it with a slingshot in the face of an unwary passerby.  The tragedy is that he seems like a sweet kid when life isn't slowly turning him into a sociopath, until he shocks us by doing something despicable.

Naturally, the strange woman living in the big, empty house nearby fires the imaginations of Seth and his two friends, Eben and Kim. After a visit in which she reveals that her young husband hanged himself in the barn years before, Seth gradually suspects that Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) is a vampire.

When his war-hero brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) finally returns home from the South Pacific, Seth becomes convinced that Dolphin wants to seduce him and drain him of his life-giving blood. But when dead bodies start turning up, the local sheriff suspects Seth's oddball father due to some scandalously sordid events in his past.


The lead actors all are excellent here, especially Duncan as Dolphin Blue, who, as director Ridley points out, bears a similarity to Miss Havisham in Dickens' "Great Expectations." We're often as unsure of her intentions as Seth, although as the story unfolds we begin to see what a tragic and damaged figure she is.

Mortensen's Cameron surprises by behaving less nobly than we expect for a returning WWII hero, displaying a short temper that's sometimes directed at Seth. We think he's going to be a calm, stabilizing influence, but it soon becomes clear that he's a product of the same bizarre upbringing that's in the process of warping his little brother.

And while Cameron's sudden affair with Dolphin is desperately intense for both, the meeting of two such troubled souls is itself troubling.  She speaks of how exciting it was to be in London during the German bombings, and he talks of how beautiful it was to watch whole Pacific islands explode.


The most affecting performance, however, comes from young Jeremy Cooper as Seth.  He's fascinating to watch as the intensely emotional child who seems heartbreakingly normal one moment and frighteningly twisted the next.  (We can't blame Seth for being messed up after seeing how his mother treats him.)

Jeremy's concentration is such that the camera lingers on his face and expressive eyes as he loses himself in the part of the volatile young boy and gains our sympathy. Not once does he come off as a kid actor being directed or reciting lines, and much of his performance is quite intuitive.

Pictorially, THE REFLECTING SKIN is one of the most splendid films I've ever seen. Each carefully composed shot is exhilarating to behold as the cumulative effect washes over the viewer like the wind swaying those fields of wheat.  (We're reminded at times of Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN.)

 
This combines with the fever-dream strangeness of the story to produce a feeling that I didn't want to end.  It's like Tom Sawyer meets David Lynch, only more insidiously weird and unexpected and seductively intoxicating as it fluctuates between the mundane and the surreal. (And I haven't even mentioned a lot of the REALLY weird stuff.)

The Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics is in 1:85:1 widescreen with 2.0 stereo and English subtitles. The director oversaw the new 2K digital restoration which looks and sounds beautiful.  Besides his informative commentary, there's a lengthy featurette called "Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin" and trailers for this and other Film Movment Classics releases. Also included is an illustrated essay in booklet form.

THE REFLECTING SKIN is like one of those dreams which on the surface seems normal but just isn't quite right, and then without warning it kicks into nightmare gear and back again. Although I found the ending somewhat jarringly abrupt, and thus rather unsatisfying, it may just be that I simply didn't want this story to ever end and resented the fact that, eventually, it had to.


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