In “Skin Deep,” director Alex Schaad uses genre conceit to provoke a gamut of daring questions into the relationship between the biological, corporeal, and emotional. Schaad relies on the much-abused trope of body swapping but finds rich, stimulating ways of toying with it, the early confusion and hesitation embedded in it quickly blossoming into generative engines for the self.

Leyla (Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler) are a young couple who can pass off as reasonably happy and content. They arrive at a remote unnamed island on the invitation of Leyla’s university mate, Stella ( Edgar Seige). The first jolt in this film comes with Stella’s introduction, who has the guise of an old man. The event the couple has come for is to mark the death of Stella’s father but also for a unique retreat initiated by the deceased. Partners and couples come together for an experiment where they can exchange bodies. Leyla and Tristan are paired with a couple who’ve been together for eight years, the flashy Mo (Dimitrij Schaad, who has also co-written the film) and Fabienne (Maryam Zaree). There’s a palpable jadedness to both the couples, which Mo tries to tide over with his exuberant, showy energy.

However, the pairing doesn’t get off to any uproarious start, with Leyla and Tristan ultimately taking comfort in dismissing the other two as soon as they are back in their room. The rites of transition are depicted in a spare fashion. The couples are whisked inside a tower-like structure, where they proceed through ‘cleansing,’ viz., a ritual bath. They must keep close individual totems that will remind them of who they are and have the choice of aborting the swap at any moment by informing Roman ( Thomas Woodlanka). There is the initial uneasiness that manifests in uneven, tentative speech and motor functions. But the couples’ adaptation to their new bodies throws up a whole bunch of messy, complicated reckonings they are forced into confronting.

 

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté
Skin Deep (2024) Movie
A still from Skin Deep (2024)

The fluidity with which Schaad orchestrates the increasingly tangled epiphanies and bursts of personal realization becomes the film’s driving axis of inquiry. Here, the interrogations blaze out in all sorts of directions, unafraid to continuously challenge the pre-fixed trajectories of characters. The film consciously chafes against rigidity and stasis as it assertively gestures to an embrace of identity that isn’t bound or contained. There’s a defiance and willfulness with which the characters register the flush of new sensations, experiences and feelings as they cast off the shell of their former bodies.

It is Leyla who is especially enthused with the transformation into Fabienne’s body. The withdrawn self vanishes, replaced with a spry and vividly inquisitive presence. Leyla finds herself invigorated in her new body, as if the change was tailor-made for her, whereas Tristan is visibly disconcerted by it. Stella Leyla confides how she has been suffering for a long time, but her new body has given her a lease of life and infused her with a brighter vision. For the first time in a while, she admits to having dreams that are not relentlessly bleak.

Mo and Fabienne have also been going through a rough patch in their relationship. An exasperated Mo rants to Tristan about the difficulties of sustaining interest in one’s partner as time goes by. Both Mo and Fabienne seem to have outworn the other as they seek out what their impulse nudges them into. They pursue other opportunities with a restless hunger when they gauge they aren’t being able to satisfy the other. To divulge more would risk ruining the particular thrill with which Schaad allows his film to unfurl, boldly heading into a fascinating, risqué minefield that cuts across intimate anxieties and confessions. All the teasing and playfulness never lose a charge of empathy, propelling it.

This is a film that aches with questions and curiosity at every turn, plunging into biting discomfort of ‘what-ifs,’ audaciously stretching it beyond a mere gimmick. Brimming with a series of examinations that ponder what it means to love someone and if it can remain if the other has taken on an unfamiliar body, “Skin Deep” spells out directly in a scene its preoccupation with the self as a fragile construct. Every actor seamlessly glides through the many shifts in form, making the intertitles futile, but Jonas Dassler and Thomas Wodianka especially conjure a crackling electricity and exquisitely imbue the film with the joy and quiver of strange new encounters. The sensitivity with which their scene is directed is an immediate reminder of the film’s honest, perceptive gaze, casually reframing supposed unorthodoxy with humanity and warmth.

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Skin Deep (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
Skin Deep (2024) Movie Cast: Mala Emde, Jonas Dassler, Dimitrij Schaad
Skin Deep (2024) Movie Genre: Drama/Fantasy, Runtime: 1h 43m

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