Skin Deep


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Skin Deep
"There’s a vast amount going on in Alex Schaad’s ambitious film." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

We meet Leyla (at this stage played by Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler) on the boat as they travel to the island. Leyla has been dozing. The air is fresh and damp with spray. There’s that sense of possibility which often precedes a holiday or other break from day to day routine, but neither of them can anticipate how much their experience will change them. Tristan has not understood how wrong things are to begin with, and Leyla may not quite understand why.

They are travelling to an island for a unique spiritual experience. There are plenty of those out there, you might note, but this is a little different. After picking out a lottery ticket, they are randomly paired with another couple, Mo (Dimitrij Schaad) and Fabienne (Maryam Zaree). Mo’s sleazy comments as he tries to break the ice may make you wonder if this is some kind of partner-swapping party, but not quite. In fact, they are going to swap bodies.

It’s a temporary arrangement – a sort of holiday from familiar flesh. There is discussion around consent, and lots of safeguards are provided. The swap can be brought to an end at any time by any party involved. At first it’s about exploration. Mo and Fabienne have done this before, but Leyla and Tristan have not. They move around with a sense of wonder, trying out different activities, experiencing the world in subtly different ways. Sex is permitted, but is not the only concern. Tristan has a disturbing encounter which leaves him with uncertain feelings about the experience, but Leyla finds that, in Fabienne’s body, she is suddenly able to talk and think about things which were too much to reckon with previously. Partly as a result of this, she will go on to make a second body swap and discover what it’s like to feel comfortable with her physical form for the first time.

Given the vast number of news items produced about trans people in recent years, most people probably have some familiarity with the term gender dysphoria, the deep sense of discomfort which can stem from a mismatch between aspects of the body and mind. What’s less often talked about is gender euphoria, the overwhelming sense of rightness when things finally fit. “I’ve been sick for as long as I can remember,” says Leyla, trying to explain the malaise which Tristan could never quite see or make sense of. The film does a tremendous job of conveying the relief present in such an experience – but there is also terror, of course, because at some point the swap will have to end.

There’s a vast amount going on in Alex Schaad’s ambitious film, which screened as part of the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Leyla’s journey is a challenging one but it also precipitates a crisis for Tristan, who must ask himself whether he is in love with a body, a mind, or a perpetually suffering combination of the two. If it’s the mind, how much can he change who he is to accommodate that love? Though Leyla may seem to be going through the biggest change, that’s more a process of reconciling with something long present. For Tristan, these ideas around embodiment, sexuality and identity are new, by turns exciting and terrifying. The resolution he finds doesn’t quite ring true – one doubts if it’s sustainable – but there’s a poetry to it, and the process by which he gets there is one which many people whose partners have gone through big physical changes (whether due to transition, illness or just age) will find resonant.

Alongside these larger themes are small but pertinent observations about the effect of spending time in a place where one feels one can really be oneself, only to have to face returning home again, which raises questions about the ways in which many of us could be truer to ourselves in day to day life. There’s an awareness, too, of the overlap between desire, love and the wish to be a particular other person, which is often described as a uniquely queer experience but which many other people will relate to to a degree. This is a film which asks viewers to set aside preconceptions about the boundaries of their own identities and do what cinema was made for – step inside other people for a while and see the world through their eyes.

That it’s a treat for the actors involved should go without saying. There’s challenging work for them all round, and though there are no weak links, it’s a supporting turn from Thomas Wodianka which really steals the show. Alex Schaad does an impressive job of keeping performances consistent in order to sell the body swap scenes. He also resists the urge to be flashy, keeping the tone of the film down to earth so that the focus stays where it needs to be. The result is a film which will intrigue most viewers and hit some like a punch in the gut.

Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2023
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Skin Deep packshot
At first glance, Leyla and Tristan seem like a happy young couple. But when they travel to a mysterious, remote island, a game of identities begins.

Director: Alex Schaad

Writer: Alex Schaad, Dimitrij Schaad

Starring: Mala Emde, Jonas Dassler, Dimitrij Schaad, Maryam Zaree, Thomas Wodianka, Edgar Selge

Year: 2022

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Germany

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