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Buildings are “machines for living in,” said Le Corbusier, and that notion quickly takes a perverse turn in Marina de Van’s In My Skin. This startling and original, if difficult to watch, film begins with split-screen views of some of the sterile, glass-skin modern office buildings found on the outskirts of Paris. These corporate hamster cages are the natural habitat of Esther, an ambitious (you might even say ruthless) French marketing-company employee. But there is another sort of machine Esther feels less comfortable living in: her own body.

The right side of those opening split-screens shows the image in negative, suggesting what lies beneath. Esther, who is played by de Van, has apparently not thought much about the infrastructure that supports her existence. Her revelation comes at a party, a perfunctory, work-related affair where techno challenges conversation and the office lech waylays her. Esther wanders outside into a dark and apparently cluttered yard, where she falls and tears her pants. Only later does she realize that she’s leaving a trail of blood. One of her legs is badly gashed, but Esther hasn’t noticed anything.

As the night ends, Esther visits a physician, who’s surprised that she didn’t come right away. Stitching up the wound, the doctor suggests that Esther may someday want plastic surgery to minimize it. But that’s exactly what she doesn’t want. She keeps reopening the incision, fascinated by—what? The blood, the pain, the portal to the interior, the vulnerability of the human organism? Wisely, In My Skin doesn’t include the scene in which Esther explains her newfound obsession to a friend, a shrink, or the camera itself. Her one attempt to discuss the matter, with her friend and rival Sandrine (Léa Drucker), is awkward and unresolved. Yet most viewers will understand a little of Esther’s fixation, even if they wouldn’t or couldn’t carry it to such extremes.

One person to whom Esther particularly can’t reveal herself is her boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas). The couple are making plans to live together, an arrangement that doesn’t suit her new appetite for self-destruction. Vincent is bothered by Esther’s wound and freaked by any suggestion that she might mutilate herself further. After one incident, in which Esther begins cutting her arm while at a business dinner with self-impressed clients who prattle about the superiority of Paris to other major cities, she stages a car crash so as to explain her new injuries to Vincent. Soon, she’s checking into hotels where she can mortify her flesh without his knowledge.

Esther, in other words, is having an affair with her own blood and pain. That’s not only the witty parallel writer-director de Van draws between her protagonist’s aberrant behavior and everyday life—or, for that matter, cinematic conventions. In My Skin alternately suggests a vampire flick, a sex movie—albeit a Cronenbergian one—and a cannibal adventure in which hunter and victim are the same individual. Esther’s body is equated not only with buildings, which are complex yet bloodless entities, but also with the meat on fellow diners’ plates, whose history does involve mangling and suffering. Esther’s limbs become alien to her, sometimes naturalistically, as when she wakes up to discover that her arm has gone to sleep, but once surrealistically: Drunk and distracted, she finds that her arm has become uncontrollable and literally detached.

De Van, who co-wrote François Ozon’s distinctive Under the Sand and formulaic 8 Women, is as confident as she is skilled. She has cast herself in a role that must carry every scene and not be upstaged by the gore. With her dramatic eyebrows and flared nostrils, she is the sort of striking, formidable, but not precisely pretty woman often seen in Pedro Almodóvar films. In several of the self-lacerating scenes, the director successfully relies on tight closeups of her own face to convey a mixture of anguish and release. There are also, however, closeups of injuries and scenes of copious bloodletting that are quite explicit, if abstracted. And de Van sometimes interjects woozy point-of-view shots that express Esther’s disorientation, taking the viewer not merely beneath her skin but also behind her eyes.

Visions is presenting In My Skin, which opened in New York seven months ago, as part of its “Truly Shocking” series. The bulk of these five movies have not proved especially shocking—or even interesting. And only Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle and de Van’s film are profound as well as profoundly unsettling. Both present dispositions that few viewers will find sympathetic, yet are cogent nonetheless. These are not examples of art that embodies a universal truth, but of work that expresses a singular sensibility with such potency as to be irrefutable.

More than two decades ago, Hector Babenco made Pixote, the film that introduced the international art-house audience to Brazil’s throwaway children and recidivist underworld. This is no longer unknown territory, but two 2003 productions, City of God and Bus 174, rendered it fresh and vital. In fact, Babenco’s worthy but minor new movie, Carandiru, suffers by comparison. A return to jailhouse theatrics for the maker of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the film is set (and was actually shot) in a notoriously overcrowded São Paulo detention house that was demolished in 2002. The script was adapted by Victor Navas, Fernando Bonassi, and Babenco from the best-selling memoir of Drauzio Varella, the director’s own physician.

Carandiru depends on two contrasts, only one of which should be disclosed. The film opens with a confrontation between overwrought Lula (Dionísio Neto) and imperturbable Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), the assassin who killed Lula’s father. Rather than establish the prison as a place of chaotic disorganization and berserk passions, the incident reveals a mostly orderly and largely self-regulating society. (There aren’t enough guards to control the 7,000 inmates, so the prisoners have had to invent their own system of governance.) Lula and Dagger’s clash is interrupted by Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), who is the inmates’ magistrate, traveling diplomat, and supreme leader. (“Ebony” is the distinguished name used in the subtitles; the press kit specifies a more racially inflammatory handle.) Tranquility is restored and the central character is introduced: a never-named doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who has just begun to visit the prison.

The period is the ’80s, and though the doc is there to deal with diverse medical issues, he has a particular interest in AIDS. He is also a catalyst for frequent confessions and reminiscences that unfold in the stagy manner of a vintage Hollywood melodrama. We follow the saga of drug kingpin Highness (Ailton Graça), who’s greeted on conjugal-visit days by both his wife, Dalva (Maria Luisa Mendonça), and his lover, Rosirene (Aida Leiner), women who seem as likely to kill each other as any pair of feuding inmates. We meet the estrogen-enhanced, wildly promiscuous Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) and his rough, diminutive lover, No Way (Gero Camilo), who await their HIV-test results and subsequent wedding. We learn the harsh fates of two foster brothers, tough Zico (Wagner Moura) and gentle Deusdete (Caio Blat), who are reunited in jail. And so on. Babenco never seems to get quite the tone he intends, and though the film does conjure the pulsing, sweaty atmosphere of the jampacked prison, its string of anecdotes has little cumulative impact.

Because Carandiru is based on a true story, its ending is technically not a secret. Still, few Americans will know what eventually happened, and that innocence is probably for the best: It gives the conclusion a power that the rest of tale largely lacks. Still, the final wallop is insufficient to transform the movie. Carandiru can be recommended to those with a particular interest in Brazil’s dispossessed, but anyone who hasn’t seen Pixote or City of God would be well-advised to investigate those works before deciding to spend 145 minutes behind bars with the residents of Babenco’s slightly stodgy latest.CP