Skin of Man, Heart of Beast Movie Review

Upon departing the screening of Helene Angel's Skin of Man, Heart of Beast, I was left with a stupefying mental puzzle filled with jagged pieces of plot and dialogue that did not quite fit together in any coherent manner. While the film is linear in the traditional sense, free of time warps and flashbacks, the imagery and symbolism cause one to wonder about its underlying message. Is it a criticism of the brutal treatment of women in rural French society? Or is it a story of conquest about two innocent young girls able to overcome a sadly dysfunctional family situation? Because of the film's ambiguity, I'll discuss only those pieces of the puzzle that are concrete enough to judge and explain.

Serge Riaboukine and Barnard Blancan represent the titular "beasts." They are two brothers that not only appear strikingly beastly on the outside, but also have rapacious souls, which they nourish through the abuse of women. Riaboukine plays Franky, an alcoholic city cop who is forced to give up his badge after savagely beating a prostitute while in a drunken stupor. He retreats to the family farm with his mother (Maaike Jansen), teenage brother (Pascal Cervo), and two daughters. There he reunites with his boyhood community and is warmly welcomed by his family, friends, and not surprisingly, sleazy underworld connections. Ironically, he is gentle and loving around his two girls, especially the baby, five-year-old Aurelie (Cathy Hinderchild), whose character is meant to symbolize purity, as she exists in an overly optimistic world of fairies and fantasy. At night when he steps way from his family, however, Franky is a gluttonous savage of a man who parties, drinks, and womanizes with reckless abandon.

Coincidentally, the day after Franky arrives on the farm, his estranged second brother Coco (Serge Riaboukine) also suddenly returns home after 15 years. Coco is mysterious from the start. Eerily silent, he claims to have been a Legionnaire, but we are left wondering whether or not that explanation is a lie to cover up years of imprisonment? There are also allusions to Coco's homosexuality, as he rants about a mysterious friend named Ronnie and won't touch any of the local women that inexplicably fawn over him. He undeniably has some dark secrets and after he watches his older brother in the midst of the neighborhood nightlife bullying and abusing the opposite sex, the stage is set for Coco's unraveling, as he begins to act in the same manner.

Narrated by one of the young daughters looking back as an older woman, the film uses the children's reflections of their dreams to explain the torment their father and uncle create. At one point, the older teenage sister Christelle (Virginie Guinand) tries to warn her younger sister, who mysteriously has taken a liking to Coco, by explaining her nightmare in which Coco has chopped up their bodies and served them for dinner. The film then flashes to a dream sequence with the three adults eating ravenously until the grandmother and Frankie realize they are eating the two girls. Exasperated, they begin to spew blood from their mouths and flail about with shame, while Coco, on the other hand, continues to eat unperturbed. Despite its gore, the scene exemplifies the vulnerability of the two young girls and their feelings of isolation from their family as they deal with the surrounding influences of malevolence.

Coco's eventual demise serves as a wakeup call to Frankie, but is it too late to save his family? Skin of Man, Heart of Beast leaves that up for the audience to decide, while never explaining the mysterious questions of Coco's past, merely offering more perplexing dreams for figurative interpretation. With so many loose ends, the puzzle becomes nearly impossible to solve.

What is redeeming about the film are the two girls, whose ability to handle such a disheartening situation is courageous. Unfortunately, the darker elements of misogyny and unprovoked violence suffocate the illumination created by the two daughters and the sparse instances of humor meant to shine through the gloomy film noir veil.

Aka Peau d'homme coeur de bête.


Skin of Man, Heart of Beast Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: R, 1999


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