Adam Sliwinski, Alain Mayrand, Ava Hughes, body image, Canadian films, cinema, Comforting Skin, Derek Franson, directorial debut, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, foreign films, horror, horror films, isolation, Jane Sowerby, Jenn Griffin, John Tench, loneliness, male-female friendships, mental breakdown, mental illness, Movies, obsession, Paul Jarrett, Phil Granger, psychological horror, Repulsion, self-abuse, self-confidence, set in Canada, tattoo, tattoos, twenty-something angst, Tygh Runyan, Victoria Bidewell, writer-director
If you think about it, it’s been quite the long, strange journey for the art of tattooing. Once denigrated as the mark of the rough-and-tumble, the larcenous and the counter-culture, tattoos used to be one of the fastest ways to earn the disapproving stares and condemnations of “polite” society. Nowadays, however, with everyone from the local barista to the TV meteorologist to the lacrosse team sporting their own skin art, it’s kind of silly to think about how controversial this used to be. In fact, tattoos have become so adopted by the mainstream that not having them has become its own statement of purpose, in the same way that getting them used to be. A brave, new world, indeed!
One of the most fascinating aspects of the current mainstream acceptance of tattoos is the fundamental way in which it repurposes said tattoos. In the past, tattoos were seen as a sign of individuality (we’ll leave out discussions of tribal, gang and organizational markings, lest we’re here all day) and a way for someone to set themselves aside from “normal” society. Nowadays, tattoos have almost the opposite effect, uniting whole masses of people in ways that would have previously been unheard of. For every person who comes to an artist with a detailed layout and design scheme, there are at least a bakers’ dozen behind said person who are probably all going to get variations on the same design. It’s a pretty interesting phenomenon, this transition from the private self to the greater whole: it’s not like we’re seeing the same thing, writ large, all over society and pop culture, right?
First-time writer/director Derek Franson takes this dual nature of tattoos, as both unifier and distancer, and folds it within the framework of a discussion on body image with his debut, Comforting Skin (2011). In a way, it’s a pretty smart observation: we modify our bodies as a way to not only “exert authority” over them, as it were, but also as a way to send a message to the rest of the world. The modifications might be “for us” but they also communicate whatever our intended message is to the masses: even if the message is “Stay away,” we’re still expecting some sort of response. Ah, the modern malaise: the desire to be “connected” vs the inherent need to “know yourself.” As with everything else, we can’t have it all, no matter how much we might want it.
We first meet our erstwhile protagonist, Koffie (Victoria Bidewell), as she awkwardly tries to get a guy’s attention at a crowded dance club. At first glance, she’s kind of a sad sack: shy, plain and self-conscious due to some acne scars, Koffie is the kind of person who’s all but invisible to the “beautiful’ people who always seem to be having so much more fun than the rest of us. Hell, Koffie’s best friend, Synthia (Jane Sowerby), just has to wiggle her finger at a guy and he follows her all the way home like a well-trained puppy: Koffie can’t even get them to maintain eye contact.
More than anything, Koffie is desperately lonely, despite the near constant presence of her other best friend/roommate, Nathan (Tygh Runyan), who also happens to be a sociophobe who relies on Koffie to ease his transition into society. Koffie and Nathan seem to have fun together but a buddy isn’t the same thing as a lover, as we see when she pines around her former beau, Allan (Philip Granger), a shitty gallery owner who left Koffie to “fuck someone sane,” as he cheerfully tells her. Even though Allan seems like the human equivalent of pond scum, Koffie begs to get back together with him: even an abusive relationship is better than none, as far as she’s concerned.
After finding herself in a decidedly low-rent tattoo parlor one night, seemingly by happenstance, Koffie makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to get an “original” design on her shoulder. Despite Nathan’s rather cruel derision, Koffie is over-joyed with her new art and begins to experience the kind of elation and high energy that some folks might experience in…well, in a new relationship. When life continues to beat Koffie down, however, she finds herself despondent and inches away from cutting herself with a box cutter: life has handed Koffie so many lemons that she’s completely buried in sour, yellow fruit.
In a development that might be considered unusual, however, Koffie’s new tattoo appears to move around her body, as if it were some sort of living organism. It also speaks to her in a soothing, convincing tone that sounds suspiciously like her own voice. Although poor Koffie is, at first, suitably horrified, she comes to view the tattoo as a confidant, relying on it for support and advise. In short order, Koffie finds herself much happier and more confident, even as she finds herself increasingly estranged from both Synthia and Nathan. The tattoo seems like a true blue friend, albeit a rather jealous, possessive one. Nothing bad can come from taking life advise from your tattoo, though, right? As the line between reality and insanity blurs, Koffie will either emerge as a bold, new individual or she’ll be completely consumed by something shadowy, seductive…and evil.
Comforting Skin starts strong: there’s something undeniably intriguing about a “living” tattoo and the underlying discussion of body image and abusive relationships seems like a natural fit for this kind of film. For a brief time, the film chugs along impressively, building up a nice melancholy atmosphere and establishing Koffie as an interesting, sympathetic character. As the film goes on, however, it gets gradually more inane, the plot stretching so thin as to spring leaks at every turn. This wouldn’t be such a crucial issue, ultimately, if the characters were stronger but everything sort of collapses in on itself in a slow-motion implosion. As the film gets sillier and the characters become more unpleasant, it becomes harder to stay invested: by the conclusion, I was just about as removed, emotionally, as possible, despite being fairly invested earlier.
Much of the blame, unfortunately, falls on the shoulders of Victoria Bidewell: despite starting strong, with some genuinely powerful, subtle emotional moments, Koffie’s character quickly becomes whiny, melodramatic and almost unbearably tedious. Her one and only function seems to be acquiring a boyfriend, at any cost, and she quickly becomes the female equivalent of TV’s Ted Mosby. Scene after scene revolves around her complaining about her love life, complaining about her family, complaining about Synthia, etc etc…he gets old by about the midpoint and, unfortunately, never gets any better. By the conclusion, I disliked Bidewell’s character so much that I really could have cared less how the situation unfolded: as long as it was eventually over, I was a happy camper.
Bidewell’s co-star, Tygh Runyan, fares just as poorly, coming across as one of the most obnoxious, irritating and self-entitled assholes to co-anchor a film since the glory days of the Farrelly Brothers. The scene where he acts like a complete jerk in the diner is painful to watch and he manages to match Bidewell whine or whine, which is no easy feat. In fact, none of the cast are anything approaching likable or sympathetic, with the possible exception of Ava Hughes’ performance as Koffie’s little sister, Peg: other than that, they all come across as unpleasant, entitled nitwits who relish casual cruelty, “witty” insults and “clever” observations…it all reminded me of The Comedy (2012), in the worst way possible.
The film was also unnecessarily confusing, which seems strange considering how relatively stream-lined the narrative is. Despite that, however, I often find myself a little lost on the specifics: I was 38 minutes into the film before I figured out that Koffie was trying to help Nathan overcome his sociophobia and even longer before I realized that Nathan was a composer…before that, I thought that the pair were some sort of comedy duo or owned some sort of advertising business. There’s also some very confusing business involving the tattoo appearing to “seduce” Synthia, an event which never makes sense, even within the constraints of the film’s (limited) mythology. Everything’s wrapped up in a way that allows for a happy ending, of sorts, yet nothing actually feels resolved. At times, the film threatens to veer into Repulsion (1965) territory but it never quite makes the break from the pulpier aspects of the material.
I really appreciate what Franson and company were trying to do with Comforting Skin, even if I disliked the final product: I still think there’s a helluva film to be made that deals with these exact issues of body image, self-worth and female sexuality, even if this isn’t it. We can always use more films told from a female perspective, especially within the horror genre, which has always been a notorious boys’ club. In many ways, this reminded me of Contracted (2013), although that film was relatively sturdy sailing up until the unfortunate ending. In this case, Franson has a solid starting point but the whole thing unravels well before the final credits have begun to roll. Tattoos may be a “permanent” form of self-expression but this may be one case where laser removal is the only sensible option.