Surrealism is a niche that has been largely unexplored by the LGBTQ+ filmmaking community. Experimental queer films tend to lean on the shock value of unusual storylines (see: Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013), a murder-twist embedded into a straightforward gay romance) rather than atypical film techniques. The lack of similar examples is an argument for the merit of The Skin of the Teeth (Matthew Wollin, 2018), which begins as a predictable tale, following Josef, the jittery everyman who displays endearing nervousness, hinting at inexperience. We first see Josef as he enters the stylish NYC bachelor pad belonging to the ruggedly handsome, significantly older John. The implication of Josef’s visit is immediately clear and never shied away from – this is a pre-arranged casual hookup. Events progress normally, moving from wine, to dinner, to some making out on the couch… and then the film abruptly transforms. So quickly that it’s a struggle to keep ahold of what’s happening, the audience is launched into a perturbing, Lynch-esque vacuum, far removed from the original story.
The first half of the film is so focused on realism, in script, design, and character, that it’s actually a little dull to watch. Wollins demonstrates awareness of his audience by cleverly playing on their expectation of events. I found myself growing bored with the predictable progression of the simple hookup story, as well as the typical experienced vs. inexperienced characterisation, only for my exasperation with the unimaginative scripting and structure to be violently smashed in a startling 180 degree spin into complete absurdity.
The turning point is, presumably, when Josef decides to ingest an unknown pill he finds in John’s bathroom to help ease his nerves. When Josef begins exhibiting strange symptoms, John realises what has happened and, while exasperated with Josef’s impulsive action, assures him that he will take care of him through what he describes will be a trip that’s “hard to explain, it’s experimental.” Unfortunately for Josef, not long after this John begins smashing his head against a wall until he is seemingly dead.
Caught in an extremely vulnerable position now (under the influence of an unknown substance, in a stranger’s apartment with a dead body), Josef is suddenly thrust into danger. Before he is able to make any rational action, two police arrive and take Josef away, thus beginning the latter half of the film in the secondary location: a stark, imposing police interrogation room.
Without giving too much away, Josef’s experiences in this room range from slightly odd, to terrifying, to wholly demented. Nobody wears trousers, even the police interrogators. Josef requests a lawyer, and a woman in a fox mask turns up. Scrabble is played, but Josef is only able to use the letter ‘A’.
There is one, brief moment of what could be clarity in a drug-induced psychotic break, when in the midst of the madness we suddenly see Josef rolling over in bed beside John, who is not dead, and instead sleeping soundly beside him. But this image is never revisited, even at the close of the film, so we can never be sure of the truth.
Whilst I am a fan of experimental cinema and surrealism, for me The Skin of the Teeth fell short in a few areas. Pascal Arquimedes’ acting chops are not to be sniffed at, yet without any knowledge of Josef’s life before entering John’s apartment, it was difficult to feel any empathy for him, especially as he makes several questionable decisions throughout the narrative (like taking an unknown drug found in a stranger’s apartment). The surrealism was at times relatable to allegory (Josef is black, and there were multiple hints at manifestations of his fear about police brutality or racial discrimination), yet at other times it seemed redundant and forced. In my experience, it is advisable to either present surrealist imagery as metaphor such as in Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, 1951), or to completely abandon any attempt at recognisable symbolism, such as in Lynch’s Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997). To combine the two is simply confusing.
I applaud all forays LGBTQ+ filmmakers attempt into unusual areas rarely explored by queer cinema, yet as the popularity of the genre increases, spectators must be more discerning, particularly in regards to the impact of certain stories and the representation of the community as a whole. The Skin of the Teeth is a bold leap down a lesser-travelled path, and for that reason alone it deserves praise. The acting is superb, the direction is admirable, particularly considering the handful of actors and limit of two locations. If you enjoy the weird and bizarre, try The Skin of the Teeth for yourself, and open your mind to form your own opinion.