Mar 24, 2011

The Reflecting Skin


If the devil himself created a coming-of-age film in an attempt to lure children on a metaphysical road to hell, I believe that film would resemble Philip Ridley's 1990 film The Reflecting Skin. Despite being Ridley's directorial debut, The Reflecting Skin features the kind of attention to details and distinct artistry that you would expect from a mature auteur. The Reflecting Skin, like many great films, is ripe full of ungodly perversion and unquenchable obsession. The child protagonist of the film, Seth Dove, is naive to true darkness that has engulfed his decaying rural community in rural Idaho. Set in the 1950s, The Reflecting Skin is most likely the darkest portrayal in film history of a past era in American that is generally regarded as "The Good Old Days." Personally, I see the 1950s as the beginning of the end for traditional America. With the allies win in the second World War, came a time of prosperity in the USA that American citizens had never seen before. Of course, luxury usually breeds uncontrollable hedonism and eventually unstable decadence. In The Reflecting Skin, it is apparent that the stranglehold of the original puritan ethic is crumbling away in America. Instead of fulfilling the American dream, prosperity only ignited the surly flames of an American Nightmare. In The Reflecting Skin, God is dead, as the citizens of rural Idaho have (in their hearts) killed him - they just don't know it yet. 


From the beginning of The Reflecting Skin, it is apparent that 9 year old Seth Dove is a little confused as to what is truly "Good" and "Evil" in the world. After his father commits suicide via self-immolation, Seth is left with his fanatically religious, yet morbidly neurotic religious Mother and progressive war veteran brother Cameron (played excellently by Viggo Mortensen). Before committing suicide, Seth's father introduces his son to vampire folklore. After learning about vampires, Seth is convinced that his English neighbor Dolphin, a grieving widow still in love with her departed beloved, is a bloodsucking succubus who is out to drink the blood and steal the youthful vitality of his brother Cameron. After all, Dolphin tells Seth that she is over 200 years old and disgusted by the fact that human flesh rapidly decays. Whereas Seth's cold puritanical mother physically and mentally abuses him for the smallest of infractions, the highly sensual Dolphin, who is contrary in character to every member of the puritan rural community, shows empathy for the boy's delinquency. Believing that puritanical stringency is golden, Seth can only assume that the dionysian nature of Dolphin is evil, thus vampiric. Obviously much more laidback than his kinfolk, Seth's older Cameron brother soon finds himself falling in love with the enigmatic Dolphin. Brother Cameron sees his own mother as a vampire (of the psychic non-blood-sucking sort), whose self-obsessed religious psychosis drained her own husband of his vitality. Whilst laying flowers on his father's grave, Cameron acknowledges that his Mother's vilely abusive character caused the early death of his father/her husband. 


Seth's father commits suicide after being (falsely) accused of child molestation. A one-eyed Sheriff, who gives off the vibe of a secretive pederast, asks Seth (while being extra "touchy" with the frightened lad) if his father ever molested him. From the beginning of The Reflecting Skin, it is obvious that a car of leatherjacket sporting teenagers holds sole responsibility for the evil acts occuring in the community. The sheriff describes the child molesters as a "new kind of animal." Of course, with the self-worship and dedication to personal self-indulgence promoted by Hollywood after the second World War, it is no surprise that dormant pedophiles would awaken and eventually start committing their unspeakable crimes. With collective American prosperity at the end of World War II, came the opportunity for many teenagers to have a wider range of freedom via their own personal automobiles. Taking cues from 1950s Hollywood rebels James Dean and Marlon Brando, the pedo-mobile of teens in The Reflecting Skin look like they could have been extras in the teenage rebellion flick The Wild One. Obviously, most teens from the 1950s that took influence from the likes of Dean and Brando never went on to engage in child molestation, yet the philosophy of Hollywood endorsed juvenile rebel would pave the way to such perverted extremes. After all, The Reflecting Skin is a film about American puritan decay in a vacuum - portraying one communities moral degeneration in a bizarrely surrealistic, yet classically tasteful manner. 


Seth's naive nature becomes most glaring when he mistakes a rotting white fetus for an angel and sleeps with it, as if it was his most cherished personal teddy bear. By the end of The Reflecting Skin, one can only speculate what will become of the tragedy-stricken little boy. I almost wish that director Philip Ridley would make a sequel to The Reflecting Skin portraying Seth's inevitable downward spiral into nihilistic oblivion. After The Reflecting Skin, Ridley directed The Passion of Darkly Moon (1995), a film about a mentally defective puritan man who develops an unwanted sexual obsession for a beautiful woman that nurses him back to health - eventually falling into the depths of madness. In 2009, Philip Ridley released his third feature Heartless, a film about a young man who makes a Faustian pact that he will soon come to regret. Despite the dark nature of his film, Ridley's cinematic intentions are quite noble, as if he is a post-Christian philosopher attempting to establish some morality in a seemingly hopeless apocalyptic world. Indeed, The Reflecting Skin is a film that accepts the death of Christianity in the Occident, yet begs the viewer to go beyond nihilism and accept elements of traditional Western morality that are still pertinent to maintaining stability in the rapidly deteriorating modern world. In one evening, I viewed Philip Ridley's small filmography in a personal movie marathon. After watching the films, I can express without hesitation that Philip Ridley is one of the most neglected auteur filmmaker of our times, as his films offer a admirable combination of philosophical insight and audacious imagery that can only be lumped in their own distinct category: The Films of Philip Ridley. At the very least give The Reflecting Skin a chance, as the film's stark imagery will even cause the skin of a cold immoralist emotional-cadaver to dance. 


-Ty E

7 comments:

MondoHeather said...

Honestly, this is one of the best articles I have ever read about this brilliant and intensely underrated film. Excellent work. I definitely need to check out Ridley's other two films.

Soiled Sinema said...

Thank you Heather! As a fellow fan of The Gun Club, I especially value your kind remarks.

-Ty E

tentas said...

nice review for this excellent film...
Heartless sucks

Soiled Sinema said...

Indeed, "Heartless" is certainly Ridley's worst effort.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Terrific piece. You touch on the brilliance of this film. Easily my favorite of his. A film that should be shown to every young lad before he wades into the murk of life. Much better preparation than any elementary school will offer.

kyle said...

never even heard of this film before but after reading that great review im going track it down now :) thanks

Anonymous said...

films like this take a serious look at childhood. unlike hollywood trash like Judy Moody or countless other movies