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New to Arrow - THE REFLECTING SKIN

the reflecting skin review
The cult movie that unleashed Viggo Mortensen on moviegoers.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Philip Ridley

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper

the reflecting skin poster

Released in 1990 to festival celebration, critical approbation and initial public indifference, multimedia artist Philip Ridley’s culty first feature film is something of a curate’s egg. With the film opening on a scene which depicts a group of kids who use a straw to blow air up a frog’s arse in order to inflate and subsequently explode the animal all over poor old Lindsay Duncan’s unexpectant war widow, one can imagine The Reflecting Skin doing much to cement Ridley’s then reputation as a burgeoning enfant terrible of British culture. With an oeuvre that spanned stage plays, concept art, and short films, The Reflecting Skin is strikingly indicative of Ridley’s macabre artistic interests (memory, sex, death), but also his confrontational, and, at times, candid aesthetic.

the reflecting skin review

Set in the wide open, sun bleached fields of 1950s Idaho, this coming of age narrative follows eight year old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), erstwhile frog botherer and lonely child with a miserable home life. Seth’s brother (an early role for the fantastic Viggo Mortensen) is away at war, his closeted father nurses shameful secrets, and his mother has gone a little doolally holding it all together. It isn’t hard to see why; the boundless space of the forever restless cornfields which surround the Doves’ home serves to emphasise their place in the world; relatively tiny and insignificant in the face of life’s cruelty. Across a claustrophobic summer, Seth is confronted not only by the mendacity of the adult realm, but also the brutality of existence, his caustic personality seemingly born of his inability to process such melancholy.

the reflecting skin review

Fittingly, Ridley sets his film upon a farm, and the workaday cruelty of the location is given metaphorical resonance; the landscape is either made up of fields ready to be harvested, or bleak graveyards, and, in case we didn’t get the point, Ridley embroiders his summer-gothic mise-en-scene with memento moris of skulls and dried grass. From the opening frames, The Reflecting Skin is clearly a film fashioned by an artist; visually arresting, and, even though the thematic focus is death and destruction, popping with a vibrant palette which renders each and every frame sumptuous to look at.

the reflecting skin review

However, as a film which has been produced by a conceptual artist, while it is certainly stunning to behold, The Reflecting Skin also suffers for its pedigree. Featuring a series of murders (two of them children), the tormenting of a widow, and the unlikely discovery of an aborted foetus by Seth (which he takes and proceeds to use as company, in the way other children may a teddy bear), The Reflecting Skin takes death as an obsessive focus, but has absolutely nothing of interest to observe about the topic, except for the truism that death is horrible, mean and inevitable, and kids confronted with it will probably not cope well. The topic, as one would expect from an artist, is monomaniacally iterated, but, unlike Heartless (Ridley’s more recent and underrated exploration of loss and revenge), The Reflecting Skin, awed by its bleak is brave, dark is deep ideology, at times seems as jejune as its youthful protagonist.

The Reflecting Skin is on Arrow now.