- Skin Deep tackles the role of the body in shaping our identity and showcases that our bodies are more than just our appearances.
- The movie explores the complexities of chronic illness, highlighting the different ways individuals experience and perceive their own illnesses.
- The premise of couples swapping bodies raises questions about the merging of identities in relationships and the potential impact on personal agency. The film portrays the joys and conflicts of intertwining lives with another person.
In spite of the age-old idea, the characters of Skin Deep do not lose their minds when confronted with their own bodies inhabited by someone else, at least not all of them. The slowly unraveling premise of this thoughtful drama finds a couple, Leyla and Tristan, visiting an island where they are able to swap bodies with others. The pair is primarily played by Mala Emde and Jonas Dassler, respectively, but obviously, this changes throughout the narrative. They are joined by Dimitrij Schaad, Maryam Zaree, Thomas Wodianka, and Edgar Selge, who each play a variety of roles.
This premise is subject to a number of common questions, like if you could swap bodies with anyone, who would it be? Or is the essence of our self in our body or our mind? While the narrative addresses many of the ideas you would expect, it goes beyond the basics. Since these things are possible and real within this story, the movie and its characters can provide concrete answers beyond mere speculation. The result is a movie that is fascinating both intellectually and emotionally — it doesn’t feel like a simple thought experiment; the characters’ feelings are in the driver’s seat.
Bodies, Bodies, Bodies
Release Date February 2, 2024
Runtime 1hr 43min
- A fantastical premise delivers a real and relatable message in Skin Deep.
- Wonderful performances and an excellent cast help to immerse the viewer in the film.
- Director Alex Schaad is able to blend the ideas of beauty, happiness, and health into a compelling story in his sophomore feature.
Unsurprisingly, bodies are incredibly important to the narrative, ideas, and themes of Skin Deep. As the movie interrogates the role of the body in making us who we are, it reminds the viewer that our bodies are far more than just our appearance. Of course, when Leyla and Tristan first swap bodies with another couple, Mo and Fabienne (Schaad and Zaree), their new appearances play a role — primarily for Tristan. After meeting Mo for the first time, Tristan is off-put and now finds himself detesting the body that he’s in as it belongs to someone he dislikes so strongly. However, the most credence is given to how Leyla and Tristan now feel in these bodies instead of how they look.
Leyla, who we know to have experienced significant depression in her life, finds her new body to be a delight. She runs, dances, and laughs her way through the day with a newfound lightness and freedom. Speaking to her friend Stella — a young woman in the body of her father who is in charge of the body-swapping organization — the pair ponder the idea that some bodies are just built happier than others. In turn, Fabienne (in Leyla’s body) tells Tristan that everything feels heavier to her.
Chronic Illness Conversation
In the same conversation between Fabienne and Tristan, she asks him about the self-harm scars she has discovered on Leyla’s body. Tristan shrugs, telling her, “It was a phase” and “before [his] time.” It’s a small moment that heartbreakingly says a lot about Leyla and Tristan’s relationship. On one hand, it reveals a lack of interest and care from Tristan, who hasn’t inquired about Leyla’s past. In addition, it also shows an ignorance about mental illness, likely a direct result of not asking or listening to her on the subject. The assumption that Leyla’s depression is a blip in the past rather than an ongoing experience is clearly an incorrect one to the viewer, who has known her for much less time than he has.
This conversation comes back around later in the narrative, where Leyla conveys exactly that after Tristan asks, “Are you really that unhappy?” It’s a simple question, but it’s also a punch in the gut to hear such a lack of understanding from the person who is supposed to know you best. Through this conflict, Skin Deep explores the opposing ways that different people experience illness. For some, illness is a temporary condition. You have a cold, you’re sick for a week, and then you’re better. But for others, illness can be chronic and become more of an identity. Some people experience physical and mental illnesses as lifelong conditions.
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Think of the way an alcoholic who has been sober for 10 years may still consider themselves an alcoholic; the same can be said for Leyla and her depression. It’s much more convenient to see illness as something to overcome and put behind you, but it’s often impossible. Skin Deep has the bravery to sit with the discomfort of this fact rather than brush it under the rug.
Is Partnership Worth It?
One of the most interesting parts of the way Skin Deep’s premise is laid out is that the body swaps are done as couples, and if one person decides they want to swap back before the end of the time, they all must return to their original bodies. The fact that the scenario is set up that way raises questions beyond those of the body-swapping center of this story. By conducting this experiment of sorts in pairs like this, we are forced to ask to what degree our identities are merged in a relationship. How much of ourselves do we lose? What is gained? And, do relationships impede our agency?
Leyla and Tristan’s relationship goes through a series of highs and lows in Skin Deep, but when it’s at its high, it’s quite remarkable to see. Watching the characters flourish in such a strange scenario — Tristan in his own body, Leyla in a man’s body — is a real joy. Leyla’s happiness at escaping her body is visibly infectious, with her and Tristan giggling together like children as they eat dinner. What follows should be enough to shut down conversations around the unnecessary nature of sex scenes. It’s a moment that conveys infinitely more than an expositional conversation between the couple ever could. Intertwining your life with another might bring discomfort and conflict, but it can also elevate the joyful moments beyond what is possible alone.
Queer Theory in Action
Yes, every relationship in this movie is between a man and a woman, but that doesn’t stop it existing in a queer space. This is more of a theoretical queerness, a difference and sense of freedom ingrained in the movie’s story and politics. For example, when we meet Stella, she is a young woman in the body of her elderly father. The strangeness of this is addressed, but then the story swiftly moves on, with Stella saying everyone gets used to it.
Most significantly, though, are the ideas presented about identity and self. As characters swap bodies with each other, attention is given to how this can make or break someone’s mental state. Tristan, for example, can’t stand being in Mo’s body, while Leyla adores being in Roman’s. The attitude that Skin Deep has toward the idea of bodies and gender is at once transient and reverent. It uses this fantastical premise to convey the importance of being in a body that works for you, along with the fact that, to some, it doesn’t matter.
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This is the key component of the movie, and it hinges on the performances of the central cast, who are, fortunately, wonderful. They each have to play their original character and another character inhabiting someone else’s body. As a result of the fact that the different bodies have such an impact on the characters’ happiness levels and personalities, the actors must locate a common core to the characters that are present in each iteration but then enact their own spin. It’s highly impressive to watch this play out, and it’s easy to forget that you aren’t actually watching people swapping bodies.
Skin Deep is an astonishingly thought-provoking and emotional drama that takes its premise to soaring heights. Its central questions are perfectly brought to life by the versatile cast, who make what could have been a convoluted and overly philosophical story into something simply effective. Beauty, happiness, and health collide with conflict and pain, but never in a way that creates discord. It’s a truly remarkable sophomore feature from director Alex Schaad, who is absolutely one to watch.
From Kino Lorber, Skin Deep opens Feb. 2, 2024 in New York and Feb. 9, 2024 in Los Angeles.
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