Alex Schaad’s film Skin Deep utilizes body swapping to challenge the concept of identity and explore the pursuit of happiness.
It is rare to see a body-swap film that pushes the boundaries of understanding the human experience like Skin Deep (Aus Meiner Haut) manages to. Most films where the lead characters switch bodies use this extreme measure of perspective shift for comedic effects or horror gimmicks. Skin Deep, however, uses this to challenge the concept of identity and explore the depths one will go to in the pursuit of happiness.
Skin Deep opens on Leyla (Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler), a young couple going to visit Leyla’s childhood friend, Stella (Edgar Selge), and participate in a two-week long retreat. When the clearly in love couple reach the remote island, they are greeted by Stella; however, Stella is not the young woman you would expect, but, instead, a much older man. The audience finds out that Stella’s father was a genius neuroscientist who discovered how to exchange people’s bodies for one another. During a body exchange between Stella and her father, her father passed away leaving Stella permanently in her father’s body and in charge of this yearly summer retreat, where her father would offer this experience to the public.
While Leyla is eager to rid herself of her body, her arms chalked with scars from self-inflicted cuts, Tristan is there to appease Leyla, as he knows she needs this. Leyla and Tristan swap bodies with struggling married couple Fabienne (Maryam Zaree) and Mo (Dimitrij Schaad). Fabienne is a veteran of the retreat and Mo is a brash and gluttonous newcomer. Immediately after the swap, Leyla finds she is the happiest she has been after an extremely tumultuous few years, but Tristian on the other hand struggles with being separated from his physical self. When Leyla shares she does not wish to return to her old body, their relationship begins to spiral.
Skin Deep challenges concepts of identity and how much your physical being defines who you are as a person. Leyla is a deeply unhappy character who finds solace and most importantly happiness when she is free from her physical form. She feels like she has a new outlook on life, a chance to begin fresh and unhurt by the hard years she has faced. The body she inhabits doesn’t need to be perfect; she admires the scars and tattoos of the bodies she changes into. She just feels the body she was born into is not one she can be happy in.
In a scene where she talks about her mental health struggles with Stella, she asks “if it’s possible for a body to be inherently happier or unhappier than another body”. Stella believes the concept of “self” is a fragile construct, destined to change. Leyla thrives in this environment where she can have a fresh outlook on life, something she has struggled with as she has not been able to get, metaphorically, out of her head for a long time.
Tristan foils Leyla in many ways. Where Leyla feels freed from the body she feels condemns her to unhappiness, Tristan feels lost in a body that is not his. He has a strong connection to his physical being and has never had to doubt his sense of self like Leyla has. Conversely, Tristan is challenged to love Leyla in the form she decides she identifies with.
Alex Schaad creates a story so utterly unique and wildly fascinating you cannot help but hold on to every shot in the film, eager with anticipation as to what will happen next. The performances from the entire cast are a marvel. Conceptually, this is a very difficult task for the cast, as each actor is taking on the role of two or three people throughout the film, depending on who is supposed to be in whose body at any point in the film. Each actor, however, is not only up for the task but able to seamlessly transition between characters making the audience truly believe in the magic and mystery that lies in this small fictional island.
The film, however, is not without fault. While there is rampant momentum flowing throughout the movie, the conclusion is not quite the firework spectacle or neatly wrapped ending the audience yearns for. The relationship between Fabienne and Mo, unrelated to their involvement with Leyla and Tristian, gets dropped without much care. Stella, who is a beautiful and vital character in the first two-thirds of the story, falls somehow out of the script almost entirely. It’s understandable that the film chooses to center around Leyla and Tristian and put its efforts towards telling their story; however, the audience builds such a strong connection to the other aspects of this world it is unfortunate they get no resolution in this regard.
Additionally, while it is clear that Tristian is comfortable with himself, unlike Leyla, there is no real backstory or evolution of his character, as his love for Leyla is evident from the beginning of the film and pretty much the only thing we know about his character. He struggles to adjust to the reality of this mysterious retreat and the body-changing concept, but he never truly falters in his devotion to Leyla, which, while sweet, doesn’t give him his own sense of wholeness, as his character stays static.
Skin Deep is sensitive in its questioning of what it means to be happy with oneself. It goes beyond the surface-level questions of identity and challenges relationship conventions, curious about what happens to couples when major changes within one of the individuals occur. It harnesses all its efforts, at times to its disadvantage, into exploring the identity of Leyla and the fragility of self she faces. It’s a new type of coming-of-age story, a new and literal exploration of what it means to watch someone become comfortable in their own skin.