In the incredibly bleak debut feature from Canadian filmmaker Derek Franson, a young woman struggles with her own sense of worthlessness amid an uncaring world and she begins to go mad. It’s a hook that very few genre films would be willing to come close to approaching, and it’s a credit to the sometimes surreal psychological thriller Comforting Skin that it attempts a lot of heady subject matter with a considerable amount of grace and tact within a grungy aesthetic. It’s an erotic thriller and a mind fuck, but it’s also a slow burning character study of a woman that’s been past the verge of nervous breakdown for quite some time.
Koffi (Victoria Bidewell) has led a troubled life and now currently feels like damaged goods. She’s had bouts with eating disorders, cutting, and depression in the past, and despite being really cute and attractive she often goes unnoticed. Her desire to become desired leads to her impulsively getting a tattoo on her shoulder blade with hopes of becoming more noticeable. The actual tattoo – a generic design out of a swatchbook of potential bad decisions that’s “the perfect thing for a superficial chick like me” – begins to take on a personality of its own, often whispering to Koffi to spend time alone and cut herself off from the people who care about her the most. Her confidence level rises, but she becomes an anti-social recluse, leading the audience to question if something supernatural is actually going on with her body art or if she’s merely gone mad.
Franson gets most of his mileage from his extremely game and talented cast and a wonderful cinematographer that sometimes compensates for rudimentary staging of a lot of the film’s action. His script also stumbles a little bit around the myriad of psychosexual elements as far as the actual working dynamics of the tattoo are concerned, but the way that Koffi interacts with those around her makes one think that Lena Dunham’s character from Girls was suddenly sucked into a Tales from the Crypt styled morality tale and it’s shocking how interesting such a thing is to think about. A late second act beefing up of the involvement of a courgarish party girl neighbour (Jane Sowerby) doesn’t add very much except length to an already lengthy film that clocks in at a shade under two hours, but a plot thread involving Koffi’s BFF and roommate (Tygh Runyan) gains momentum as their relationship gets strengthened thematically and tested dramatically.
But the film ultimately belongs to Bidewell who gives a brave and poignant performance in the lead. She holds the movie together even at its wonkiest points. Even when Koffi is at her most abrasive, Bidewell and Franson give her a real sense of humanity that makes the viewer want to see her succeed, find love, and shake off her demons. Even when the film becomes somewhat confused as to where it seemingly wants to go in the final 40 minutes or so, Bidewell captivates throughout.
Comforting Skin with its sometimes explicit sexuality and its obsidian dark subject matter certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but lovers of psychological case studies and morality based horror stories should find a lot to be tickled by.