Not only can your body be a temple, but it can also be a priceless rare artwork. Nominated for Best International Feature alongside the likes of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round and Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, The Man Who Sold His Skin by writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania is a provocative look at the Syrian refugee crisis, chocked full of romance, dark humour, political scrutiny, family drama, misery and staggering twists and turns. The Man Who Sold His Skin is a preposterously heavy tale, sitting somewhere between a scathing satire of elitism and western ideals in the world of priceless art and an eloquent illustration of the dehumanising refugee experience, as people who are forced to flee from what the film’s protagonist describes as ‘the wrong side of the world.’
The film centres around Sam (Yahya Mahayni), an antagonistic cynic and a hopeless romantic. When he is caught on camera making excitable and ill-judged statements about freedom and revolution, Sam sees no other choice but to flee from his home in Raqqa, Syria and cross the border into Lebanon. However, heading for safety in Beirut means leaving behind Abeer, his crystal blue-eyed, one true love. Although they keep in touch, the pair take their separate paths: Sam finds low-paying jobs in Beirut, and Abeer, encouraged by her family, marries a diplomat and relocates to Brussels to escape the civil unrest growing in Syria.
After a year of trying to hustle a way out of Beirut, Sam finds himself presented with a Faustian agreement. His Metastophalis comes in the form of Godefroy, a controversial yet internationally acclaimed artist. However, instead of knowledge in exchange for a soul, Godefroy wants to use Sam’s back as a canvas on which to tattoo his artwork. In exchange, Sam will gain a route back to Abeer and freedom of movement around the globe as a piece of travelling human art. Sam makes the deal, promising to participate in gallery showings in exchange for visas and a percentage of sale.
Godefroy tattoos a huge Schengen visa onto Sam’s back, which works to ironically expose human rights violations and the hypocritical structures in place when it comes to refugees and migrants wanting to enter Europe. As a piece of living art, Sam is commodifiable, and as such, is allowed access into Brussells, where his love awaits him. However, what Sam saw as an opportunity for freedom, becomes yet another form of captivity. In Brussels, he is locked away in hotel rooms and treated not as human but as property. His status as artwork outweighs his individual agency, meaning he is still as isolated from Abeer as he was in Beirut.
The set-up seems far-fetched, but Ben Hania’s tale was inspired by the Belgian artist Wim Devoye, who tattooed his artwork onto the back of Tim, his human canvas. Devoye sold his artwork to a German collector for millions of dollars and struck up a deal with Tim, who is now contractually required to spend a certain amount of time sitting in galleries with his tattoo on display. Ben Hania embellishes on the political aspects of this story, creating an intriguing central tale. However, this curious conundrum is buried underneath a frustrating amount of hodge-podge ideas. Although lovely and very engaging, the romantic elements of her story fail to gel with her far-reaching ideas about the art world colliding with the Syrian refugee crisis. As such, Ben Hania dumps the romantic details about halfway through, leaving us with an unearthed and unmotivated protagonist. The Man Who Sold His Skin’s ethical and political standpoints are transparent from the get-go, with Sam’s abnormal circumstances existing as a microcosm of hypocrisy. However, as we move past the initial set-up, Ben Hania fails to explore the nuances of the arrangement any further. While she does point out the unfairness of Sam’s predicament, she offers no further opinion on the matter. Eventually, the film becomes almost exploitative of the Syrian refugee experience, offering little commentary on the situation past provocative food for thought.
This is disappointing, as The Man Who Sold His Skin is delectable to behold. Christopher Aoun’s cinematography gifts the film its effortless watchabillty, with delicious visuals of Sam walking alone through empty galleries in a royal-blue silk robe working towards the film’s inviting aesthetic. For a newcomer, Yahya Mahayni’s performance is wonderfully animated: he peppers in wonderfully coy details, such as sarcastic stares, uncomfortable humour and unusual body language that work to claim agency over his objectified character. Yet, for as many refreshing details the film offers, it also works to restrict itself. Ben Hania’s attempts to connect Sam to the tragic situation unfolding in his home country through infrequent zoom-calls with his Mother don’t translate well, and a bizarre, unflinching pimple-popping scene feels far too outlandish.
The film also makes a few ill-fitting closing gambits, seemingly lifting elements of its plot straight out of an American heist comedy. As a result, as we reach the film’s close, it isn’t easy to understand what exactly Ben Hania wanted to express with this story. Overall, The Man Who Sold His Skin is an enjoyable watch, but it fails to make good on the potential of its central ideas.
‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ will have its UK premiere on August 24th at The Edinburgh International Film Festival.