The persistence of body-swapping as a plot device — “Freaky Friday,” “Being John Malkovich,” the recent “Jumanji” series — suggests something profound: We long to find out who we would be if we inhabited the someone else’s body. It’s a serious question, but on screen it tends to devolve into a comedic showcase for the actors, who can revel in playing up the incongruity of one stable, established self invading another. Physical bodies are treated as vessels; the “real” you is in a non-physical self that can jump gleefully.
“Skin Deep,” directed by Alex Schaad, has something deeper on a philosophical level. A bit of thoughtful realism wrapped in science fiction, it starts with a simple premise: what if you could go on a body-swapping retreat? The point here is not the comedy, nor the mechanics, science, or plausibility of it all. With the ability to change taken for granted, the film delves deeper into its premise, emerging with disturbing and profound thoughts about love, trauma, gender, and intimacy.
I don’t want to deprive you of the skillfully constructed pleasure of discovery of this film. “Skin Deep” unfolds without rush. What I can say is that it focuses on Leyla (Mala Emde) and Tristan (Jonas Dassler), who love each other deeply but have been going through one of those indescribably difficult times brought on by not being able to connect as they once did. They boarded a ferry and headed to a two-week retreat on a quiet, isolated island, invited by an old university friend of Leyla’s. Once there, the strangeness begins. “What is this place?” » Tristan asks, but Leyla doesn’t really know.
Perhaps the plot is best left there. Schaad wisely constructed “Skin Deep,” a film about trying someone else’s perspective from the inside, to replicate that experience for audiences as much as possible. Much of the film is shot with a handheld camera, which gives the audience a feeling of intimacy, as if we are present in the room, another character in the drama. The choice to only gradually reveal what is happening – there are no clumsy explanatory speeches here to establish the rules of the world for us – appeals to us. We’re there with Leyla and Tristan, just trying to figure out what’s going on. The strong performances of Emde and Dassler, as well as Dimitrij Schaad, Maryam Zaree and especially Thomas Wodianka, make the exchange less funny and more moving.
But once you accept the more fantastical trappings, the film shifts into a different mode. There are metaphors about body image issues and the experiences of transgender people, rendered in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Each exchange brings new questions. If you loved someone and they were suffering, what would it mean to give them your body? If your lover finally felt like themselves in a new body – even one of a different gender – would it change your relationship? When you love someone, what does it really mean? Do we like their body? Their soul? Are they really separable?
You can sense that Descartes is interested in this, but “Skin Deep” doesn’t just probe the mind-body connection. That’s certainly part of it. In a conversation, two characters inhabiting new bodies talk about where their selves actually reside. “Our so-called self is a very fragile concept,” one says to the other, pointing out that the body’s biochemical and hormonal systems change and alter each person’s moods, inclinations and desires. “You are the person you are because of the body you have,” the person continues. The answer to the age-old question – whether “I”, so to speak, is actually the product of my thoughts, or my physical presence, or both, or neither – is, in this film, simply “yes”.
But Schaad’s goal is not limited to delving into philosophical ideas about the seat of the self. It’s only a beginning. The real question of this film is more personal, more human: what does oneself have to do with others? What does love really mean? “Skin Deep” provides an answer: true love is an act of radical imagination, a work to understand what it feels like to be another person. In reality, we can’t just swap bodies to find out, but love invites us to try anyway.
Unclassified. In German, subtitled. Duration: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.