Sydney FF 2019: MY NUDITY MEANS NOTHING – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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For those still shaken by Marina de Van’s shocking, brave and wholly unique 2002 debut film In My Skin, that the French filmmaker, actor and writer has finally returned with a feature-length film is cause for unbridled celebration. Like In My Skin, although shifting from fictional filmmaking to a documentary format with My Nudity Means Nothing, in many ways these two works have much in common: both feature de Van as their central subject, and both hold at their core a fundamental, almost clinical, focus on the relationship between gender, identity and corporeality.

As will no doubt be etched deeply into the psyche of those fortunate enough to have seen In My Skin, that earlier film stars de Van herself as Esther, a young woman who spirals into self-mutilation after an accident at a party. With its unflinching depiction of self-harm, while far from a horror film (or even genre film) per se, the refusal to shy away from graphic depictions of violence saw de Van aligned by foreign critics at least with the so-called “New French Extremity” movement.

de Van followed her breakthrough debut with the 2009 thriller Don’t Look Back with Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, followed by a turn to more generically recognizable horror in 2012 with the Irish-French co-production Dark Touch. While superficially evoking associations with the ‘evil child’ subgenre, Dark Touch in particular shares an interest in gender politics, sexuality and – as its title suggests – the power of physical contact and the sensory intensity of haptic connection.

My Nudity Means Nothing appears to de Van’s foreign admirers after a time of comparative silence; she had worked on television and short films, while also furthering her career as a writer. Yet with her return to a feature length filmmaking, with My Nudity Means Nothing one of the most vital and original French filmmakers of our time does not disappoint, and in many ways provides a fascinating bookend to some of the core themes of In My Skin in particular as we spend our time with de Van in what she consciously constructs as extremely intimate proximity, focused deliberately on her naked body. As the title suggests, that body is predominantly only dressed when she leaves her tiny Paris apartment, mostly do go on dates she has organized online with a series of men. Narrated primarily through de Van’s frank and honest voiceover, she speaks of her life in a physical body that is aging, of how she relates that body to pleasure – be it from herself or from other people – as she works through the complexities of identity and self in a changing world and a changing skin.

This voiceover welcomes us simply and calmly into her world as she announces, “I don’t know how to start this story”. Yet in a typical de Vanian paradox, she already has: this story has already begun with the minimum of fuss and fanfare as she invites us into the most intimate, private and often unambiguously banal aspects of her life. She watches television, she vapes, she pats her cat, she plays music. Throughout the film, her voice remains predominantly detached from her body, and as she talks calmly to us, we see the folds, the freckles, the nipples, the dimples. She tells us her fears and anxieties; “I see myself turning into a sexless figure…the good old friend”. But these words float distantly, untethered from the unclothed de Van we see on screen. Her naked body is not the start and end point of her story; rather, she is, the person who lives within it.

My Nudity Means Nothing plays with defamiliarization on this level; at times, we see bruises that are never explained, pimples, and other realities of women’s bodies so broadly ignored in cinema. As that flesh is covered – clothed – de Van reveals to us rituals of presentation and performance as she prepares for a date, putting on makeup and choosing what to wear. But in her film, these rituals take a back seat to those private moments we all know but rarely acknowledge – the hanging out naked or in our underwear on our own, where our bodies stop becoming objects for an imagined omnipresent audience but where our nudity means nothing, too.

The paradox here – one de Van is well aware of – is this is all on show because she is presenting it in a documentary film. There are a number of crucial scenes that we can only identify as being contrived in some way for the screen; one is a largely silent sexual encounter that takes a turn towards force (de Van’s omnipotent voiceover suddenly and notably absent) and, more optimistically, the film’s upbeat ending, unable to wholly define as genuinely hopeful or gently mocking of our own (and perhaps de Van’s) expectations. Perhaps most remarkably of all is de Van’s following a young couple to a hotel room and wandering in where they have sex; while never aggressive or overt, it remains difficult in the context of this scene especially to not call into question our own voyeurism in relation to the very film we are watching.

There are also numerous moments of pure joy in the film; a highlight is where de Van dances with passionate, urgent nostalgia to “Flashdance”, mimicking Jennifer Beals’ dance moves in that film’s famous climactic scene. The tension here is between de Van’s seen and unseen naked body – we know that she knows we’re watching because it is she after all who is filming it. And yet, it feels like a window into a wholly private moment, one we are blessed to share not because of the spectacle of the dancing naked woman, but because she is so completely and wholly comfortable in her own skin and trusts us with it.

It would be remiss to ignore the presence of Nisar, her cat; “I feel both alone and accompanied” she says of her feline companion, perhaps the most succinct description of cat ownership ever verbalized. As Nisar kneads de Van’s buttocks as she sleeps, its tail caressing her face as it walks past her without her even registering, if nothing else My Nudity Means Nothing is a thoughtful and profound reflection on the often sentimental, trivialized connection women and cats. Agnès Varda would be proud.

More seriously, however, considering the philosophical weightiness of its subject matter, the film is notable for its absence of deep pain or even heavy emotionality that might otherwise seem unavoidable. Rather, it isreplaced instead by an objective, almost clinical curiosity at her own body and the inescapble way that time impacts its form and shape. Becoming as used to de Van’s naked body as I perhaps am of my own, the physical aspects of her body that began to strike me are notable for their ubiquity; I could barely restrain my fascination at the sight of a hair elastic imprint on her wrist, something almost all of us with long hair experience on a daily basis, and yet I have no memory of ever seeing on film. Contrast this to the endless nipples, breasts, buttocks I’ve seen across years of watching cinema, and on this level alone de Van has succeeded in telling us something fundamental that demands an urgent rethinking of what nudity on film means (clue: the answer is in the title).

It’s hard to know who will or won’t connect with this film, but what remains central and so vital to her craft is that she does not attempt to speak of any kind of universal experience: like de Van, I can only speak of and for myself, and on this front I found My Nudity Means Nothing was a radical experience. Just as the My Nudity Means Nothing rejects through its autobiographical premise any unverisalising, essentialist tendency, I am at the same time struck by how much this film spoke to me, my relationship to my own body and my body to others. And, perhaps most of all, of the love of and for a cat.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.