Horror movies, even gross ones like ''The Texas Chainsaw Rehash,'' have become multiplex freak-outs laced with laughs and jolts. They may goose you a few times, but they have no real intent to disturb. In an age when even cannibal zombie flicks are considered routine video fodder, a true horror film, like Takeshi Miike's sado-erotic shocker ''Audition'' (2000), takes you somewhere you haven't been and, perhaps, don't want to go. Whatever else can be said of the gruesomely sick and extreme French psychodrama In My Skin, it accomplishes just that. I can't claim that I honestly ''enjoyed'' it, yet perhaps it's a form of praise to say that ''In My Skin'' is an experience you won't easily shake.
The movie, a case study in self-mutilation, was written and directed by its star, Marina de Van, who has the spooked eyes, ratlike teeth, and pale moroseness of a vampire in a silent film. Her character, Esther, is a research analyst who scrapes her lower leg and becomes obsessed, to ever more hideous degrees, with extending her accidental wounds, slicing and tearing at her skin as if it concealed something she was desperate to let out. She goes far beyond the ''cutting'' of modern teenage girls, yet it must be said that de Van implies more than she shows. The film's power, if that's the right word, is that it pushes masochism to the point of disgust.
There's one moment of creepy fantasy: Esther, at a business dinner, imagines her left arm as an object sitting on the table, its disembodied numbness melting into madness. Mostly, though, ''In My Skin'' assaults you with scenes of suggestive clinical shock; it's like Cronenberg meets de Sade, plus a lot of knives. The movie turns self-annihilation into a form of communion, only with real flesh and blood, and without God.