Criminally Neglected: The Reflecting Skin

Philip Ridley's haunting American Gothic portrait of the loss of innocence should be held up as one of the great art-house films of the 1990s... so why have so few people even heard of it?

Some pieces of cinema are so emotionally intense, with such raw and uncompromising power, that audiences just aren't prepared for them. They may deserve to be held up as great classics, but not enough viewers are willing to undergo the experience to appreciate them as such. Philip Ridley's haunting 1990 directorial debut, The Reflecting Skin, is one such film: a beautifully painful Southern-Gothic tale that is very much at home alongside other Criminally Neglected masterpieces like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. It is a stunningly shot, emotionally evocative, almost poetic story about the loss of innocence and the bleakness of reality, set against the existential angst of post-World War II rural America. At times reminiscent of both Terrance Malick and David Lynch, though thoroughly its own beast throughout, Ridley's tale by all rights should be held in the highest echelon of art cinema's tragic tales. Yet somehow it instead was allowed to fall into obscurity as quickly as it emerged, remaining out of print for over a decade, and never even receiving a widescreen release in the U.S. It still remains unavailable in any sort of decent release in America, but for those willing to import, a beautifully-restored Canadian blu-ray and DVD release came out in mid-March. This film needs to be rediscovered, and with this definitive edition available just over the border, now is the perfect time.

Eight-year-old Seth Dove is learning the hard way that the world is a terribly cruel place. Growing up in the film's bleak and dusty Southern landscape wouldn't be conducive to a happy childhood under the best of circumstances, but his reality is also growing ever more increasingly full of grim and horrific truths that his youthful mind is unable to process. All the adults in his life are emotionally and psychologically damaged in various ways, several of them harbor painful, potentially dangerous secrets that he is too young to understand, and even the fantastical ideas that his mind conjures up as coping mechanisms are growing ever darker. The Reflecting Skin follows young Seth as he tries to navigate this landscape as best he can, in a story that could either be described as a fall from innocence, or an exceptionally painful coming-of-age. It turns Americana on its head in a manner not unlike a rural Blue Velvet, but writer/director Philip Ridley's approach is decidedly original: likely influenced by David Lynch, but not derivative of him. Observing the whole story through the eyes and perspective of a child - who already exhibits a mix of innocence and cruelty even at such a young age - gives the whole thing a psychologically-subjective style that makes it all the more poetic. It also makes it even more disturbing, as he sees things that no child of that age should have to.

Ridley is boldly uncompromising in his artistic vision, making difficult choices that may not make his film immediately accessible, but ultimately make it much stronger and more powerful. When we first meet young Seth, we are introduced to him in a way that immediately makes us dislike and distrust him; a seemingly odd decision for the film's protagonist. Yet as we get to know him and his world, it becomes clear that Ridley made this choice so that we would begin the film in the same position as the adults that surround Seth: distant and alienated from him, unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. As the film goes on and we come to understand and sympathize with him, the act of reassessing his character allows us to more strongly feel the emotional impact of the coldness and hostility he receives. It makes us implicit in the film's cruelty towards this should-be-innocent kid, and positions us as participants rather than just viewers.

The way that Ridley keeps us at an emotional distance for much of the film's first act invites us to view it with a very analytical mindset, which its dense images and themes certainly benefit from. Then as the tone of the movie shifts and it lets us in emotionally, we see it from the other side, and feel the things that we had previously just been studying. All of this makes The Reflecting Skin a thoroughly uneasy experience to undergo, but it also invites multiple viewings: re-watching it once you know what sort of a journey it is trying to take you on, so much more becomes clear, and the first act in particular takes on a very different feel.

Just as the film's structure works like an emotional puzzle that the viewer must interact with, Ridley directs his cast in a fairly cryptic way. Characters are played in a way that makes them initially difficult to understand and get a feel for; understated and ambiguous despite their often surreal dialogue. Like the film itself, though, their layers become clear and open themselves up to interpretation. The most fascinating and enigmatic performance belongs to Lindsay Duncan, as a grieving widow surreally named Dolphin Blue. Her grief, and the bleakly existential philosophy that it has inspired, makes her both captivating and terrifying to Seth, and it is never quite clear if the character we see is Dolphin as she really is, or a psychologically-subjective portrayal filtered through our young main character's eyes. Either way, the mix of coldness and genuine human pain which Duncan brings to her character is breathtaking. Viggo Mortensen is likewise excellent as Seth's older brother, who has just returned from World War II a haunted man. The scenes between him and Seth have a quiet, understated power, with so much more being said than the few carefully-selected words in their dialogue.

At the heart of it all, though, is a nine-year-old actor named Jeremy Cooper, in his only starring role. As Seth, Cooper is fantastic, giving a dark, complex performance with wisdom beyond his years. It is hard to imagine that a kid so young could possibly understand the existentially heavy script, but his performance seems to get it completely. With a mix of innocence and darkness, carefreeness and grim fatalism, we see in him all the complexity of a kid struggling to come to terms with a terrible reality. While it has a source within the narrative, the title The Reflecting Skin also functions as a metaphor for Seth Dove himself: he may not understand everything that is happening around him, but his emotional reactions to it all are a mirror reflecting the madness of his world.

The film is beautifully, hauntingly shot, with stylized compositions of the Southern countryside worthy of Terrence Malick. Alternating between intense colors and muted gloom, between sweeping landscapes and harsh close-ups, the visual artistry of The Reflecting Skin is just as compelling as its themes. This is all the more reason why it is truly a shame that its only American DVD is a pan-and-scan release which appears to be a recycling of its old laserdisc transfer. Endless thanks are owed to Soda Films for finally changing all that: their director-approved 2015 remaster, available on blu-ray and DVD in Canada (Region A/1) and the UK (Region B/2) finally gives the film the respect it deserves but has never gotten.

In addition to a truly stunning transfer, the Soda 
Films blu-ray/DVD
is also packed with special features. There is an audio commentary by Philip Ridley, and a 45-minute documentary about the film, which features extensive interviews with Ridley, Viggo Mortensen, and other key members of the production crew. There is also another documentary about Ridley's subsequent films, with particular focus on the similarly neglected The Passion of Darkly Noon, likewise co-starring Mortensen. The filmmaker and actor are again heavily featured in this documentary; seeing an actor as prominent as Viggo Mortensen speak at such great length and with so much passion about two smaller indies from early in his career is particularly cool. Rounding out the features are two early short films by Ridley, a gallery of artwork related to the film, and an isolated audio track for the movie's haunting score. I don't think even Criterion could have given us a better special edition. While in theory the disc has not been released in America, I'll happily let you in on a secret... ships to the US. Don't fall for the overpriced scalpers on Ebay – you can get the discs for the ridiculously cheap price of less than $15 for the blu or $10 for the DVD.

Now that The Reflecting Skin finally has a really good release (which is much easier to acquire in the U.S. than it initially appears), it is high time to lift this film from obscurity and give it its rightful place among the great art-house features of the 1990s. Its uncompromising emotional journey certainly won't be for everyone, but if you are intrigued by the promise of Ridley's debut feature, it is an absolute must-see. Anyone with an appreciation for David Lynch's psychologically-driven surrealism or Terrence Malick's visual poetry will find much to enjoy; not in any derivative sense, but in a bold original work by a kindred artistic spirit. The Soda Films disc is possibly one of the most essential art-house blu-ray releases of 2016 so far; if you are tempted to gaze into The Reflecting Skin, it needs a place on your shelf.

Pinterest Google+ StumbleUpon Twitter Reddit Facebook


- Christopher S. Jordan