Director and co-writer Alex Schaad has made a bold gamble with his new film Skin Deep, taking what is essentially an ‘80s-style body-swap premise and crafting it into a subdued, even solemn art film about depression, relationships, and sexuality. It gives life to the old cliché about loving someone enough to let them go, to see if they come back. But what if they come back as a different person? The film begins on a peculiar note, as an old man enters a bedroom and finds the body of a young woman lying dead. The man then begins uttering “Papa” in dismay. We are next introduced to Layla (Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler), a young couple traveling via ship to some sort of vacation destination. They’re in love, but it’s muted and familiar; clearly, this is a couple that has been together for some time. Arriving at a secluded, bucolic island, they are greeted by the same old man glimpsed in the prologue. He introduces himself as Stella (Edgar Selge) and begins chatting with Layla, reminiscing about their time together as students while Layla expresses her deep condolences at the passing of Stella’s “father.” It’s odd, to say the least, and feels like the setup to a horror film more than anything else.
Thankfully, Schaad soon dispenses with the mystery-box plotting and explains exactly what is going on. In this isolated place, Stella’s father pioneered a procedure allowing two people to swap consciousnesses. Stella was in her father’s body and he in hers when her body suffered a sudden aneurysm. In other words, Stella’s body died with her father’s mind inside of it, and now she is trapped in him. She’s come to accept it, and is now overseeing the annual event about to take place — couples arrive for an extended two-week stay where they will swap minds and bodies with another randomly selected couple. Layla and Tristan find themselves matched with Mo (Dimitrij Schaad, the director’s brother and co-writer on the film) & Fabienne (Maryam Zaree), a slightly older couple with children who have gone through the experience before. They are a sort of heightened, mirror image of their younger counterparts — Mo is a brash and outlandish drunk while Tristan is reserved; Fabienne is confident, even sultry, while Layla is shy and hesitant. But they go through with the change, a vague process that Schaad depicts with just enough detail to make it digestible without attempting to explain it scientifically (it involves powders, some sort of medicinal tea, and then submerging bodies in a pool of water).
What follows is complicated to explain on paper, although Schaad lays it out with simple clarity for viewers; periodic title cards declare who is who at any given moment, listing the character’s names but also who is inhabiting them, i.e. Tristan (Tristan), then later Tristan (Mo), followed by Mo (Tristan) and so forth. There’s no mystery here; Schaad isn’t interested in mind games, but in exploring the complex, inter-connected dynamics that might flow from such a scenario. What would you do with a new body? And what does a new body do for depression? After all, if you can get a new brain, does that cure whatever chemical imbalance or misfiring synapse that has led to that depression? Layla flourishes while inside Fabienne’s body, and is dismayed when Tristan pulls the plug on the swaps (any member of the quartet can end the experience early, no questions asked). Further complicating matters is the presence of Roman (Thomas Wodianka), Stella’s father’s longtime companion who volunteers to swap one on one with Layla. What does Tristan do once his girlfriend’s consciousness is inside the body of a middle-aged man?
Working with cinematographer Ahmed El Nagar, Schaad has crafted a quiet, occasionally disturbing tale of a relationship in crisis. The island’s natural beauty is captured in simple, precise compositions that carefully chart the physical and emotional distances between the characters. Depending on who is occupying who at any given moment, passions are reignited or quickly snuffed back out. Mo and Fabienne prove to be wild cards, and the threat of sexual violence rears its head. But there’s also a generosity of spirit here, a non-judgmental acceptance of different body types and sorta-kinda polyamorous encounters. It’s a heady conceit, and while the energy flags toward the end while Schaad tries to terminate his various narrative strands, the film ends on a fascinating precipice. What does it mean to truly love someone? Skin Deep proffers a very specific answer to this eternal question.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.