The saying goes that in order to understand someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes, but Alex Schaad’s broad yet entrancing “Skin Deep” offers an alternate method: In order to understand someone, try swapping bodies with them for a few days. That solution might be less efficient, but it’s far more complete. Indeed, the mysterious white tower at the center of the Esalen-like island retreat where this lightly supernatural German drama takes place is nothing if not a machine that creates empathy. It creates other feelings too (i.e. euphoria, self-understanding, and several different kinds of lust), but the people who seem most receptive to and transformed by the experience tend to think of empathy as the ultimate goal, if only because they’ve exhausted all other means of achieving it.
These people aren’t sociopaths, they’re just in long-term relationships. They’ve arrived at that sad — but inevitable? — point where the soft intimacy they used to share with their partners has curdled into two perfectly siloed echo chambers that make it impossible to hear each other over the deafening feedback of what’s already been said. These days, Leyla can hardly even hear herself (she’s played by a recessive Mala Emde, whose canny performance doubles as both a projection and its screen). While Leyla still has great affection for her ponytailed boyfriend Tristan (a firmly gentle Jonas Dassler), her self-identity appears to be suffocating under the weight of her stagnant relationship. In a world where who you’re with is easier to change than who you are, breaking up might be the most obvious solution. “Skin Deep” does not take place in that world. Then again, changing who you are may not be as simple as it seems.
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From the opening moments of this impressive debut (co-written by Schaad and his brother Dimitrij), there’s a vague sense that several of the characters we meet are not who they appear to be. Twentysomething Leyla has been invited to the island by an old friend of hers from university, but the old man waiting for her and Tristan when their ferry arrives (“The Experiment” actor Edgar Selge) doesn’t much resemble the Stella we had in mind. And that disconnect is further underlined when Stella calls out to his female-presenting assistant with an enthusiasm that suggests he takes a special pleasure in saying her name: Ezra.
Although shy and hesitant about the whole situation, Leyla seems rather intrigued by how lightly everyone on the island wears their skin. It’s not a curveball so much as a giddy proof-of-concept. “The so-called ‘self’ is a very fragile construct,” Stella declares, and visitors to this strange playground will find much to enjoy about their time in a place where identity is divorced from the bodies that usually do so much to define it.
How does “the gift of being another person” help reduce the chance of divorce? As with most of its premise, “Skin Deep” approaches that subject with a light touch, and always with emotion leading the way over logic. But as Leyla and Tristran are paired with another couple — a beautifully forlorn mother named Fabienne (Maryam Zaree) and her hedonistic boor of a husband, Mo (Dimitrij Schaad again, alive in every frame) — and put through a new age water ceremony involving personal totems and chiffon robes, their excitement begins to explain itself.
It doesn’t hurt that all of these people are young-ish and good-looking (though their various insecurities all come out to play), but Mo is the only one who seems to be there for out-of-body sexual experiences. The rest of the foursome isn’t as clear on what they’re hoping to find, but the headrush they get from swapping their skin suggests that a change in perspective is its own reward. What better way to discover the root essence of who you are than to spend a little time as someone else? To look at yourself through another person’s eyes, or — in Mo’s case — to try and make out with yourself from inside another person’s body? Alas, it will take just about every mix-and-match configuration of ghosts and shells for these characters to realize that self-understanding is only a part of what they might find at the retreat, and maybe just a path to something more profound.
There’s obviously an ironic undertone to the Schaads’ decision to call this movie “Skin Deep,” and so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that their script glosses over the more superficial aspects of its premise. It doesn’t belabor Mo’s enthusiasm over inheriting Tristan’s six-pack, or hone in on how delightful it is for Leyla — a former dancer — to suddenly have the lungs of a long-distance runner. Instead, this film opts for an impressionistic approach to its fantasy, as long scenes give way to free-flowing rushes of pure feeling (most of them carried by Richard Ruzicka’s lush and evocative score).
Leyla is too thinly sketched for “Skin Deep” to become something more than a potent conceptual exercise, but we know her well enough to sense that she’s liberated by the magic of larping as Fabienne. Tristan proves more resistant to the process; a musician by trade, he’s attuned to the dissonance of his experience, and all he learns from listening to the world through Mo’s ears is that the guy is hard of hearing, which might explain why he often tunes people out.
That observation provides a telling clue as to where this movie is going, or at least as to what it will be looking for along the way, as questions of the self gradually — sometimes almost imperceptibly — begin to extend towards the other. Is how Leyla and Tristan identify themselves the same thing that influences their love for each other? Are their feelings more attached to their partners’ mind or their body? It might be easier for us to make that kind of distinction within ourselves than it is to apply it to other people.
“Skin Deep” offers only the most glancing answers to any of those questions, as the movie is understandably a lot more interested in asking them than it is in trying to force its characters towards a contrived sense of enlightenment. It’s not unusual for such high-concept films to indulge in a thorny and fascinating second act only to find itself grasping for a more defined conflict in the third, and that’s essentially what happens here, as the broad philosophical mysteries take Leyla down a rabbit-hole that might be too deep for her to ever climb out. And that, in turn, only asks more questions about the trust involved in lending someone your body for a while, and the ever-present risk that you might never get it back.
As this thoughtful and full-bodied dramatic mess-around wends its way towards some kind of an ending, the movie’s inability to wrangle its infinite possibilities is buoyed by a series of well-blocked scenes that manage to convey all sorts of dysphoria through their camerawork alone. And yet, Leyla’s refusal to go back to her body eventually becomes urgent enough to involve other people, and “Skin Deep” finagles it to do so in a way that faintly resembles something like closure. Escape, however, is another story altogether, but at least these characters might come to appreciate all of the ways in which they’re trapped with themselves — and each other.
A Kino Lorber release, “Skin Deep” is now playing in theaters.
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