The Skin of Sorrow opens with the camera panning down from an amorous couple to a bird’s eye view of a roulette table. The strange, distant echoes of laughter combined with the slowed movements of the hazy figures inside the casino create a dream like quality as desperate, young Raphaël de Valentin (Thomas Coumans) takes a seat at a roulette table. He bets a gold napoleon, and the wheel spins to the sound of a slowed heart beat. Valentin loses, of course, and stumbles away from the table. He considers suicide by drowning but this results in humiliation. So then it’s onto a shop of curios where the blind shop owner (Jean-Pierre Marielle) suspecting Valentin is considering suicide, offers him “a more enjoyable tool.” He offers him the “skin of sorrow,” the skin of an onager. On the skin, in Sanskrit, is written “want and your wishes will come true.” The shop owner explains:
The power of the skin of sorrow has a price. It will shrink after all the wishes according to their importance. And your life will shrink as well. You won’t live long.
In spite of the dire warning, Valentin is not deterred. After all, in his current, bitter mood, he’s ready to toss away his life anyway.
Almost immediately, Valentin’s luck begins to change. He’s dragged off to a party by his friend Rastignac (Julien Honoré), a man who swears there are many ways to become rich in Paris. That night, Valentin is given a prestigious job as editor-in chief, is solicited by a prostitute, and joins in an orgy. While indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, Valentin is given the news that he’s now fabulously wealthy thanks to a huge, unexpected legacy.
Valentin’s rapid change of fortune does nothing to improve his character. He leaves his lodgings where he survived by providing piano lessons to the landlady’s daughter, Pauline (Annabelle Hettmann) and begins pursuing a worthless, cold society beauty Fedora (Mylène Jampanoï). Even though Valentin is aware that the skin shrinks with every wish, he still wishes for things aren’t worth the cost. Then, as the skin shrinks smaller and smaller, Valentin begins to understand the value of life, but his knowledge comes too late. This is, of course, a moral tale. The film is beautifully made, a pleasure to watch and the costumes are excellent. Throughout the film, the hint of magic and otherworldly powers are laced subtly into the soundtrack. There are a couple of sex scenes and I could say that Balzac is rolling in his grave about the sexed-up changes to his book, but you never know, Balzac might enjoy this version.
In French with subtitles.
(currently free to watch in America on IMDB, with ads)