Venice 2022 Review: SKIN DEEP, A Melancholic Exploration of Gender Identity
Director Alex Schaad's feature-length debut uses the subtle sci-fi concept of body-swapping to explore gender identity and body dysmorphia.
In the current state of cinema, tired tropes and clichés are becoming new fodder for repurposing and story transformation, as can be seen in the feature film debut by Kazakh-born, German-based newcomer Alex Schaad and Skin Deep (orig. Aus meiner Haut), which he co-penned with his brother Dmitrij Schaad.
The Schaad siblings open their film with a naturalistic-shot boat drip depicting a couple who appear to be traveling on a honeymoon vacation. The lovebirds, as it soon transpires, are not a married couple and neither are they on a journey to a week of carnal gratification.
Leyla and Tristan are traveling to a remote island at the invitation of Leyla's childhood friend Stella. Upon their arrival, Tristan finds out that Stella has the body of a middle-aged man. The Schaads flip the Twilight Zone switch, as Skin Deep is a lo-fi sci-fi, or speculative fiction to use a more precise specification.
More couples reconvene at the mysterious island. Amid the casual banter and ice-breaking, Stella leads a lottery pairing the couples into quartets. Swapping is about to take place: body-swapping.
The body-swapping trope reached its zenith in genre and non-genre fiction and since then degraded into a corny storytelling device. The biggest failure of the body-swapping trope does not lie within the trope itself but in the context and the style the trope is applied.
With few stellar examples of body-swapping narratives, the most recent one that has been a success was episode 7 in the first season of the series Red Oaks. Schaads opted for a more sober and less sentimental execution compared to Red Oaks.
Skin Deep cuts in the opposite direction as a melancholic romance. However, Leyla and Tristan's relationship is not the crux of the story. It is Leyla's relationship with her body. Her gloomy and moody emotional states are blamed on her discomfort with her skin. As soon as she changes the bodily vessel, her joie de vivre miraculously returns.
This cannot be said of Tristan, who has a rather awkward experience. The Schaads structure the narrative into several chapters headlined by the names of characters and bodies they are occupying. The hint proves redundant, since personalities hiding in different earthly vessels are easily deciphered, based on dialogues.
The body-swapping narrative does not follow the plotting of a whodunnit or whosinit in creating suspense, or confusion. On the contrary, Skin Deep is an introspective psychological drama about veiled body dysmorphia and the topic of gender identity.
The Schaads use the concept of sci-fi the same way Athina Rachel Tsangari did for Slow Business of Going, a subtle concept for exploring gender fluidity, sexuality, and the relation of body and mind in the equation.