VENICE 2022 International Film Critics’ Week
Review: Skin Deep
by Elena Lazic
- VENICE 2022: Kazakh-born, German-based director Alex Schaad’s feature debut is a thoughtful take on the body-swap film
From Face Off to Freaky Friday, body-swap films tend to focus on the scenario’s potential for social chaos, with characters suddenly forced to play roles they never usually occupy in society, their new physical shell functioning as a very effective disguise. Less is generally made of the effects of such an experience on the inner life of the subjects, perhaps because this area is a total minefield. Kazakh-born, German-based director Alex Schaad bravely takes on the mission of wading through those ideas in his feature debut, Skin Deep [+see also:
interview: Alex Schaad
film profile], which has premiered in the International Film Critics’ Week section of this year’s Venice Film Festival, and touches on disturbing questions about the self and the origins of love.
Wider social dynamics are immediately out of the equation as Leyla (Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler) step onto the island where the entire film is set, to attend a retreat we are initially led to believe amounts to a large, luxurious swingers’ club. The young couple are welcomed by Stella (Edgar Selge), a school friend of Leyla’s who has the appearance of a man of an advanced age but the mannerisms of a young woman. A mysterious pre-credit scene which showed her finding a dead young woman in a large bed and asking “Papa?” already suggested that Stella isn’t a transgender person, at least not in the way we understand the term in the real world. In fact, Stella had swapped bodies with her father just before he died – or rather, before her original body failed. She is now stuck with his, which does not seem to bother her in the slightest. Tristan is also remarkably cool about this, and once Leyla gets past her initial surprise at seeing her friend’s new-yet-old body, she is eager to take part.
Why do this? A better question would be why not. As Stella puts it, the retreat offers “the gift of being another person” for two weeks. The easy-going Tristan is up for it, the way this passive young man, accommodating to a fault, seems up for anything. But it soon becomes clear that the stakes are much higher for Leyla. Mala Emde plays the young woman as the living embodiment of weariness, her eyes betraying an unmistakable despair and her every movement apparently requiring more energy from her than she can muster. After living this way for years, she is hoping that changing her body might help fix her mind. Emde’s performance is so believable that the film could have done without the motif of drowning as a thinly veiled metaphor for depression, though its suggestion of the physical and sensual is helpful in a movie that sometimes threatens to get carried away in theoretical speculation.
On that latter point, the Schaad brothers (Alex and Dimitrij Schaad, the latter also starring in the film as another participant), who wrote the film, nevertheless maintain an admirable grip on the emotional arcs of their characters as the various permutations they explore put them in a situation best described, as Tristan does, as a “mindfuck”. After first exploring the basic question of personality (which allows for the always-fun treat of seeing the same actor playing different characters within a single movie), the film soon moves on to the more intriguing one of gender, as Leyla eventually borrows the body of a man who works on the island. In one of its best-realised moments, the film tenderly stages what is essentially the experience of a partner dealing with their partner’s transition – if the process of transitioning could be completed in just a couple of hours. Jonas Dassler and Thomas Wodianka (who plays the man whose body Leyla borrows) make the connection between Tristan and Leyla felt so keenly that, even as Leyla is now played by a biological man, the scene never once feels like a sensationalistic, wacky “what if” scenario. On the contrary, this is an important step in Leyla and Tristan’s relationship, a moment that slightly scares them both – him the most, understandably so – but which brings them closer than they ever were before. It is a shame, then, that the film ends on a rather predictable note, with some of the characters’ behaviours in the climatic scene being slightly contrived and unconvincing. However, Skin Deep does hit enough of the right notes for us to forgive its few imperfections, and what could have been a glib sci-fi premise turns into an unexpected and moving portrait of love as rooted in acceptance.
Skin Deep was produced by Germany’s Walker + Worm Film GmbH & Co KG and BR Bayerischer Rundfunk. Its international sales are handled by Beta Cinema.
Photogallery 05/09/2022: Venice 2022 - Skin Deep
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