Fantasia 2023: The Boundlessness of Human Spirit is the Beauty of ‘Skin Deep’

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Beginning in a shroud of mystery, the viewer gazes upon a shoreside meeting. A couple, walking off a small ferry onto a mysterious island, is met by an older gentleman and a strange feeling. Leyla (Mala Emde) and Stella (Edgar Selge) embrace and speak as if they’re old friends but react like they have never met before. Maybe it’s because we’re horror fans that something seems so familiar about this. Midsommar fans will feel an ominousness that can’t be classified, expecting that nothing good can happen on Tristan (Jonas Dassler) and Leyla’s island retreat in Alex Schaad’s Skin Deep. 

Leyla and Tristan cuddle
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

While the atmosphere of Skin Deep is filled with mystique, the film doesn’t contend to hide anything sinister. We’re pretty quick to learn that Tristan and Leyla have come to this place to swap places with another couple, living life through their senses for a few days before the retreat ends. Tristan and Leyla are teamed with the egocentric Mo (The film’s co-writer Dimitrij Schaad) and his wife Fabienne (Maryam Zaree) and spend an evening getting to know them before assuming their outward appearances the following day. Tristan and Leyla quickly learn a lot about themselves inside their new vessels, with Leyla feeling an achieved sense of freedom and Tristan inverting into a state of identity panic and confusion. 

In the second half of the story, characters swap again, pitting Tristan and Leyla into a same-sex relationship. Leyla grows emotionally fulfilled in her new body while Tristan attempts to support her. Skin Deep becomes so much more than just another body-swapping film but an allegory for Trans relationships. Filmmakers Alex and Dimitrij Schadd imbue the film’s characters with a profound sense of individualism that resonates from a heartfelt place, tackling the insecurity and inhibitions of physical sexuality when you love the transitioning person. Tristan and Leyla, learning from their initial alter ego avatars Mo and Fabienne, progressively realize how important communication is when overcoming these hang-ups as they fight to make their relationship work. 

Allow me to divert from Skin Deep momentarily. If you’ve never seen John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, you’re missing out. Rock Hudson gives one of the finest performances of his career as an aging banker in search of a new life, only to find himself feeling out of place when given the opportunity to lead a new one. Though his onscreen persona was always the leading ladies’ man, Hudson was privately a gay man and the first celebrity known to tragically succumb to the AIDS virus. Seconds allowed Hudson’s character to escape the confines of a life he grew disenchanted by in search of a new one, and it may be why it’s one of the actors’ most iconic roles.  

Fabienne and Mo and Tristan and Leyla sit on a bench in front of a series of windows in a white room facing a man with his back turned to the camera in Skin Deep
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

I thought of Frankenheimer’s film a lot while watching Skin Deep, as well as the more modern and idealistically similar Being John Malkovich. Both suggest the same dissociation of feeling more comfortable in another person’s skin, with Seconds utilizing a more muted, closeted approach as the actor supporting the role. It stays nuanced enough for audiences of its 1966 release date. Being John Malkovich, on the other hand, capably brought a couple of sexually confused characters together by its end. Skin Deep continues to evolve the body swap metaphor tale with a much bolder and more empathetic approach to Queer storytelling.  

Skin Deep works as a poetic and romanticized film about soul bonding by humanizing and illuminating natural despondent feelings about being a prisoner in your own body. Beyond anything else, Skin Deep is a film about connection, comfort, and consideration. With that in mind, the audience takes inventory of the satisfaction level they have in their own skin and contemplates the moments when they wish they were anyone other than themselves. Focusing mainly on Leyla’s journey, we see how often the needs of those around her are selfishly put above her own while she has suffered in silence. That sense of self-comfort becomes a thought-provoking essay as we see how these characters emotionally respond and, in Tristan’s case, reject the body they’re assigned to. 

The film’s ensemble, who all shift between multiple characters, give such sincere performances you never have a problem seeing the character’s identity through any actor’s portrayal. If you know someone who’s suffered through repressed dysmorphic feelings and thoughts and seen how it weighs upon them, Leyla becomes a character we can’t help but relate to. Someone we, like Tristan, want to see achieve their extended happiness. 

Three people arrive on a beach by boat, a man is waiting for them.
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

While some will argue that Skin Deep isn’t a horror film, I beg to differ. The body horror elements are vividly alive and artfully realized in Alex Schaad’s film, which offers a perspective that’s rarely considered in our current political climate. Skin Deep is one of the most affecting films I’ve seen this year, exquisitely filmed with impeccable beauty, honesty, and resonance. The Schadds deconstruct conventional marriages and the architecture of attraction by exploring what love truly is through what its characters are willing to give up for it. The character work explored throughout the writing is endearing, rounding out their dimensional qualities by making them struggle with internal and external pressures that provoke identity dilemmas through severe moral choices. As Tristan and Leyla find stability through discussion and understanding, it only makes us like them more and root for them harder as they navigate their unique situations. 

Skin Deep played at the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 3. The film is currently touring the International festival circuit.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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