Skin of Man, Heart of Beast

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST

8/10

Peau d’Homme, Coeur de Bete : France 1999 : Helene Angel : 98 mins


ONE-LINE REVIEW: Confidently-made, intense and rewarding tale of a violently dysfunctional family in rural southern France.


When slobby, hot-headed Marseilles cop Francky Pujol (Serge Riaboukine) gets into one drunken scrape too many, his superiors order him to take time off. He heads back to his peaceful home village in rural southern France, where his widowed mother Marthe (Maaike Jansen) lives with his much younger – and quieter – brother Alex (Pascal Cervo), who works at the nearby night-club run by veteran gangster Tac Tac (Jean-Louis Richard).

Francky’s daughters – teenage Christelle (Virginie Guinand) and pre-schooler Aurelie (Cathy Hinderchied) – have been staying happily with Marthe and Alex since Francky’s wife walked out some months before. They aren’t too thrilled that Daddy is back – and further disturbance is provided by the reappearance of Francky’s brother ‘Coco’ (Bernard Blancan) after 15 years away, apparently spent in the Foreign Legion. Though initially mild-mannered, Coco soon exhibits signs of severe psychological stress – with increasingly violent results that endanger his mother and nieces, and local good-time-girl Annie (Guilaine Londez).

Though there’s much else going on, Skin of Man is essentially a psychological portrait of the three fatherless, variously discontented Pujol brothers – a tense, disturbingly unpredictable, but sometimes darkly comic family chronicle. As such, we’re on very similar thematic territory to Rowan Woods’ antipodean The Boys (1997), though the geographical setting couldn’t be much more different. While Woods’ Sprague clan stewed in the confines of their pokey bungalow in a grim Sydney suburb, the Pujols roam around their impossibly scenic village, which appears to nestle near the foothills of the Pyrenees.

It’s an idyllic setting, atmospherically and evocatively captured by director Angel and cinematographer Isabelle Razavet – though they thankfully avoid mere picture-book prettiness. Aurelie appreciates the village as an ideal place to grow up, saying as much in her brief retrospective narration that frames the film’s narrative. But while her reaction to Francky – apparently a negative epitome of gritty urban reality – is understandable given the circumstances, he turns out a long way from the tough, sub-Depardieu monster he initially appears. First impressions are severely deceptive – likewise with Coco, the mercurial Christelle, and even Alex, supposedly the ‘quiet one’ of this notorious bunch.

As she fluidly shifts between the various family members and, occasionally, the other villagers, Angel and her co-writers (Jean-Claude Janer and Agnes de Sacy) are sufficiently confident to avoid spelling every last detail. This runs the risk of leaving certain characters and aspects of the story undeveloped, and leaving Skin of Man open to the same criticisms levelled in certain quarters at The Boys (which, according to one critic, “makes no serious attempt to probe how and why society produces individuals such as Brett Sprague.” wsws.org/arts/1998/jun1998/film-j06.shtml).

But ambiguity is all part of this film’s charm – and Angel does provide plenty of subtle back-story material – much of it about the impact of military defeat on a previous generation of fathers. It also helps that she’s able to conjures first-rate performances out of her mixed-generation cast. As a result, Marthe, Alex and Aurelie make at least as much impression as Francky and Coco, who have more screen time and much more plot-driving “stuff” to do. Narrowly shading the gloriously dishevelled, laissez-faire Riaboukine, the young Guinand emerges first among equals. There have been few more accurately-observed teenagers in recent cinema, and it’s appropriate that Christelle’s favourite song – the Divine Comedy’s propulsive1994 track ‘Tonight We Fly’ – provides Skin of Man with two of its most indelible and (ambiguously) joyous moments.

6th July 2002
(seen 2nd July, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young