With this visually and conceptually startling debut from Eduardo Casanova, the question of how John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar’s love child would fare as a filmmaker might just have been answered (high praise in queer film terms, of course). Fierce style, check. Subversive sexuality, check. Gross-out humor, check. Blown-up melodrama, check. Skins (translated from Pieles) is a pointedly shrill, singularly provocative exposé on our relationships to our bodies that will scar some minds, offend many sensibilities, and exhilarate all the rest of us.

Sparing no time for niceties, we’re thrown into the madness right away as a teary-eyed man gets crushed by the news that he’s become father to a healthy boy while opposite him in an aggressively pink room, a buck-naked old lady offers solace by going through a selection of innocently photographed “people“ from her very pink albums. Is this some kind of incarnation office in heaven or a boutique brothel run by Hello Kitty? Before you have time to wrap your head around anything, an eyeless girl will have stepped out to perform a flowery ballad received by one audience member with cackling laughter, the other wallowing despair – and that’s just where the title drops and things take a turn for the weirder.

Indeed, in the first half hour of Skins, we’re treated to a series of bizarre/disturbing/hysterically inappropriately vignettes, each featuring one or more characters with prominent physical deformity or disability. In situations both commonplace and slightly sinister, men and women of unconventional shapes and sizes are placed under the spotlight, their distinctive appearance magnified against a comically enhanced backdrop of prejudice, abuse, and fetishes. These scenes are often shocking to watch not least because of some truly gaga character design and make-up work, applied in one instance to create a lady with two misplaced orifices on her body. (Those who wish to experience the full impact of first seeing Samantha should avoid seeking out Casanova’s 2015 short Eat My Shit, which is centered around the same character whose handicap is not-too-subtly illustrated by the title.) There’s an undeniable “spectacle” aspect to it that will likely enrage those gentler souls among the viewers. However, building on the feistily flamboyant tone of the piece and its general positivity of energy, these outrageous gags don’t feel like exploitative mockery so much as acts of defiance against prevailing aesthetic notions or what’s considered normal.

In fact, what turned out to be even more daring than the optics is how the movie imagines those rejected by society as sick/unpretty in ways free of any romanticism or pity. These characters don’t exist in a wishful realm where others sympathize with their predicament or are drawn to them for their fine personality. They’re bullied, taken advantage of, either swiped to the left without a second thought or lusted after for kinks. Casanova doesn’t shy away from exposing the vanity, shame, phobia and the instincts to hide/change/conform dictated by a culture of superficiality, nor does he have any qualms about showing what one has to do to fend for their sanity under an oppressive regime of beauty. In this sense, all the nastiness portrayed fits into a narrative of survival that proves, yes, disgusting, but also unapologetically empowering.

After jumping between different sets of characters and scenarios within a seemingly random structure, Skins reveals bigger storytelling ambitions. Like Crash (only with the good judgment to be self-deprecating about such laborious plotting devices), the subplots are gradually woven together. While some of these “hidden connections” are gimmick-y in conception, others pay off as they send shockwaves of realization straight back to that cryptic opening. Overall it’s a nifty feat of screenwriting that aims for extreme camp and hits most of the marks getting there — scathing irony included.

The movie looks, in its garish and compulsive way, delicious. Manically manicured compositions inject a fable-like quality and decidedly queer sensitivities into the frames. Candy-colored everything underscores the emphatically artificial production design fitting for a story about surfaces. Through such lens of surreal exaggeration, Casanova shifts your averted gaze back at what’s seldom represented or even registered in the age of Tinder/Grindr. Beneath the handicap, flab and burn marks, it whispers a simple, beautiful message about feeling comfortable in one’s own skin.

Skins premiered at Berlin Film Festival.

See our complete Berlin 2017 coverage.

Grade: B+

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