Some films are ripe for rediscovery and few are as fitting for a rediscovery than Philip Ridley’s critically acclaimed but rarely seen since it’s Cannes premiere debut film The Reflecting Skin. Ridley has only directed two more films since his debut The Passion of Darkly Noon and Heartless both are equally as good but The Reflecting Skin remains his masterwork. Ridley in-between making films has crafted a career as playwright and author of both books for children and adults. He also makes music with frequent composer Nick Bicât as Dreamskin Cradle, a Ridley name if there ever was one.
The Reflecting Skin is about a young boy Seth (Jeremy Cooper) in rural Idaho in the ’50s, his father commits suicide due to the shame of being a paedophile and his brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) comes back from military duty. Cameron develops a relationship with the mysterious Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) who claims to be 100s of year old to the young Seth. Along with all of this Seth and Cameron’s mother is completely unstable and there are a group of mysterious greasers who are preying on young boys.
Ridley’s background is in visual art and during the early to mid ’80s he made a series of collage paintings depicting American celebrities like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe with a Andrew Wyeth type of background with a slightly apocalyptic edge. The initial title for The Reflecting Skin was “American Gothic” which was named after the famous painting by Grant Wood. The film’s visual cues are certainly Andrew Wyeth and to some extent Days of Heaven (which also has a heavy influence by Wyeth) and David Lynch who incorporated ’50s pop culture into something more sinister and surreal.
Ridley wanted such a heightened look for the film so much so he actually spray painted the wheat fields so they would be even more vivid than normal. Ridley also lucked out he got the master cinematographer Dick Pope who is best known for his work with Mike Leigh but has also shot more oft-kilter fare like Bernie and The Illusionist. Mortensen at this point was still probably better known as the husband of X’s Exene Cervenka but you can see in his early work the undeniable talent which became more prevalent through his work with David Cronenberg in more recent years. Jeremy Cooper gives one of the great child performances it’s a shame he didn’t really do much else but it adds to the otherworldly quality the performance has.
Over the years The Reflecting Skin has become basically a lost film but it’s influence is certainly felt in Ryan Gosling’s recent directorial debut Lost River and even Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is thematically similar but I think that’s more Ridley and Gilliam were influenced by similar art. Despite being set in the US it’s made by a British filmmaker and was funded mostly by the Brits, this release by Soda Pictures as far as I can tell is the first home video release of any kind in the UK. There was a shoddy 4:3 DVD released in the states by budget label Echo Bridge. Soda Pictures however has rescued the film with this new restoration.
The transfer was supervised by Ridley and for once it’s actually in the right aspect ratio and the colours are vivid and add so much to the film that the old releases couldn’t come close to. Soda also pulled out the works when it comes to extras for the release, there is a commentary by Ridley but the meat is a 40 minute plus documentary on the film. There is also a short featurette on Ridley’s follow-up The Passion of Darkly Noon and it’s a real shame that hasn’t been restored yet. Ridley’s early shorts are included which he introduces along with image galleries and of course the theatrical trailer. Over-all The Reflecting Skin one of the most fantastical and mysterious films of the ’90s finally gets the release it’s been deserving for so long and even the scream at the end which also ruined the film for me the first time doesn’t even seem so bad now.