“Its exploration of identity, of the id and the ego, of soul and body is definitely interesting, and Schaad announces himself as a philosopher-director in his debut, but Skin Deep is a little too unformed in its final act to be hailed as a truly great film.”
A dead girl in a bed. An old man is hovering at the foot of the bed, distressed. “Papa?” he asks.
A bewildering start to a bewildering film, Skin Deep, the intriguing and thought-provoking debut by German director Alex Schaad, doesn’t waste time getting the viewer caught in its maelstrom of ideas and confusion. A very inventive look at identity, in particular gender identity, Skin Deep has a lot of ideas that do not completely congeal into a cohesive statement, leaving the audience thinking about its concept (perhaps that was the idea) as much as its characters. I don’t generally recommend that people bring a notebook to a screening, but for Skin Deep it might just be necessary to keep track of who is who, the helpful title cards be damned.
Tristan (Jonas Dassler, mostly) and Leyla (Mala Emde, initially) are a seemingly happy young couple on their way to an island retreat. Landing on the beach, they are welcomed by the old man (Edgar Selge) we saw in the opening scene. “Stella!” Leyla greets him, and introduces him to Tristan as her friend from university. What is going on here? We are soon informed that this isn’t just any old island: it has magical powers that allow people to swap bodies; this is how ‘Stella’ ended up in her father’s body (a late discussion between Leyla and Stella providing an emotional realization on the latter’s part).
On their first night Leyla and Tristan are linked to another couple, Mo (Dimitrij Schaad, the director’s brother) and Fabienne (Maryam Zaree). Mo is a cocky and quite annoying man who is eager to do the ultimate partner swap, Fabienne visibly irritated by her own husband. A spiritual ceremony that gives off Wicker Man / Midsommar vibes later, both men and women have exchanged bodies. These aren’t the last swaps of the film, and through their experiences in other people’s skins emotions come to the surface, relationships teeter, and everyone struggles with the same question: what makes me ‘me’?
Is our body just a vessel for the person that we are, or is it part of our identity? Is our soul connected to our flesh, and does our psychological state influence our physical well-being and vice versa? These are the sort of questions Skin Deep grapples with. A relatively recent idea is that gender is a social construct. Whether you adhere to this way of thinking or not, Schaad’s film adds an interesting perspective on this idea. People change biological gender, but the personal attraction remains. When Leyla, in the body of Stella’s partner Roman (Thomas Wodianka), has an intimate night with Tristan (as Tristan, this time), is it gay sex or could one argue that this is the same heterosexual relationship the film started with? Elsewhere, Leyla’s depression subsides when she is in other people’s bodies, yet Fabienne feels a sadness in Leyla’s body in the time she inhabits it. We are a persona, but that persona cannot be seen completely disconnected from our physical presence, is what the film seems to say.
The cast has a collective field day with their characters, as could be expected. Effectively all playing two or more characters, they slip into and out of them just as easily as the people they portray do with their bodies. Speech patterns and body language are malleable tools all actors have in their toolbox, and the performances are impressive even if they are lightweight. The heft is in the screenplay’s ideas and the way it plays around with them, although eventually Skin Deep doesn’t really elevate itself above being a conversation starter (not a bad thing in itself), lacking a poignancy in its denouement that its inventive premise deserved. Its exploration of identity, of the id and the ego, of soul and body is definitely interesting, and Schaad announces himself as a philosopher-director in his debut, but Skin Deep is a little too unformed in its final act to be hailed as a truly great film.