The Reflecting Skin

The Reflecting Skin (Philip Ridley, 1990)

Back in 1990 Philip Ridley was best known for writing the screenplay which would form the basis of Peter Medak’s film THE KRAYS; his first foray into directing would come the same year. Produced by Ray Burdis and Dominic Anciano, who also produced THE KRAYS, Ridley’s follow-up film PASSION OF DARKLY NOON and their own, heavily improvised FINAL CUT and LOVE, HONOUR AND OBEY, THE REFLECTING SKIN is unlike anything else the pair has produced (although I’ve not yet gotten around to seeing DARKLY NOON) and I have to say, it’s unlike any other British film I’ve seen.

Set in the US sometime during the 1950s, THE REFLECTING SKIN focuses on Seth, a young lad who has something of a miserable home life. His father runs the local filling station and is a broken man living in fear of his domineering wife. Seth’s mother spends most of her time fantasising about the return of her eldest son who’s away with the army. Living in a vast, rural space, Seth and his friends seek relief from their boredom by fooling around and playing pranks on unsuspecting passers-by. One such stunt brings Seth into contact with the sultry Dolphin Blue: a black clad widow who may or may not be a vampire. The more time Seth spends with Dolphin the more he becomes convinced that she is a vampire, and when his friends begin to go missing she seems to be the likeliest culprit…

Ridley’s film is superb on both visual and narrative levels. While the story may seem overtly simple when it is encapsulated in a synopsis, it’s extremely rich in subtext and nuance.  Visually the film is amazing – Ridley is obviously a gifted artist, with each frame looking either like an exquisite picture or is deeply rich in symbolism. He is a filmmaker with an eye for meticulous detail and many of the compositions throughout the film are almost without equal.

The performances are also terrific: Jeremy Cooper, the kid that plays Seth, is spellbinding and it’s a real shame that after such an auspicious debut he’s appeared in nothing of note since. The rest of the cast are ace too, with Lindsay Duncan (who plays Dolphin) and an incredibly young-looking Viggo Mortensen (playing Seth’s elder brother Cameron) really standing out.

I saw the film via the German Blu-ray from Intergroove. The film is presented in either original English (Dolby Digital 5.1) or German dub and is accompanied by fully removable subtitles. The sound isn’t in the league of the latest blockbusters but the English track services the film well and delivers dialogue, foley and score clearly. The image is presented at roughly 1.77:1 –certain shots look excellent (daytime exteriors look lovely) while others not so good (night time and darker interiors do exhibit excessive grain) but this is a decent enough transfer for a film that’s fairly obscure (it’s had one English-friendly DVD release to my knowledge in Japan and that’s long out of print. Sadly the German DVD release only features the German dub). Extras consist of a short German film (which seems to have been selected for being thematically similar) and a couple of text-based features. All are in German only.

If you’re a fan of slow-burning, arty (though not pretentious) filmmaking I’d recommend the film without hesitation. It’s been a day since I’ve seen it and its imagery and themes continue to resonate. I’m now looking forward to seeing THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON (I have a fullscreen Canadian DVD on the way) and Ridley’s most recent film (and third feature as director) HEARTLESS, which is due for release in the UK in May.

                                                                                                                             (Paul Alaoui)