A Syrian man desirous to get to Europe accepts to become a canvas for a controversial contemporary artist in The Man Who Sold His Skin (L’homme qui a vendu sa peau). This is the second fiction feature from Tunisian female director Kaouther Ben Hania after Cannes 2017 Un Certain Regard title Beauty and the Dogs, and as in that smaller-scale but similarly ambitious project, she combines a sociopolitical hot potato — in this case the refugee crisis and underlying human rights issues — with a certain formalist verve. Though the final product isn’t quite a home run, it is nonetheless a very intriguing work that again suggests Ben Hania is a talent to watch.
The Man Who Sold His Skin premiered in Venice in the Horizons section for more daring works and should be a welcome guest at festivals and in niche release. The presence of a blonde (!) Monica Bellucci in a supporting role is an added marketing bonus, as is the fact that the title was shot by ace cinematographer Christopher Aoun, who was responsible for the ravishing visuals of the Oscar-nominated Lebanese feature Capernaum and whose painterly work here is equally impressive.
Sam Ali (relative newcomer Yahya Mahayni, terrific), a handsome young man from Raqqa with a boyish glint in his eyes, is head-over-heels in love with the effortlessly elegant Abeer (Dea Liane). Their star-crossed-lovers backstory is explained in an early sequence set on a train. The sweet set piece is smartly and economically written by Ben Hania and staged dynamically by the director and Aoun, who use the cramped quarters of the railcar to visually suggest how much the two want to be together but also how circumstances and society — here represented by physical barriers inside the vehicle and the many other passengers present — are keeping them apart. When Abeer finally tells Sam that, though she’d rather he’d not touch her in public, she’s into him, too, he gives a beauteous grin as wide as Raqqa’s Gate of Baghdad, ensuring audiences know he’s almost irrationally smitten.
The irrationality of Sam’s love and the sheer emotional force of this particular moment power everything that follows, as his feelings toward Abeer will inform some pretty drastic decisions. A year, a jailbreak and flight to neighboring Lebanon later, Sam has a somewhat awkwardly written chance encounter with Euro-American artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Flemish actor Koen De Bouw, not a great fit) and his calculating assistant, Soraya (Bellucci, understated). The man described as the world’s most expensive living artist is the type who casually compares himself to Mephistopheles and pontificates about “selling meaning.” He cuts a tenebrous figure, with his dark eyeliner and black nail polish suggesting that he’s hip and dark-hearted and that, in addition to “meaning,” he’s obsessed with outside appearances, too.
The film’s title refers to the Mephistophelian bargain that Jeffrey offers Sam: He’ll use the Syrian man’s back as a human canvas for an enormous tattoo of a Schengen visa, the piece of paper needed to gain entry into Europe. If this seems far-fetched, know that Godefroi is based on Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and his piece “Tim,” which is tattooed onto the back of a man named Tim Steiner. Steiner, like Sam in the movie, signed a contract with the artist that included time spent sitting in museums to showcase the artwork on his back plus a third of the price of a sale to a collector, with the obligation to be skinned after his death so that the owner can finally hang the work on their wall.
By transforming what was Delvoye and Steiner’s intentionally generic Madonna-with-skull image into a politically loaded symbol for access to Europe for non-Europeans, Ben Hania makes quite the statement. Turning a human being into a commodity, like an expensive piece of art that museums will want to display, Sam will be allowed to cross borders much more easily than as an anonymous man from a war-torn nation who hopes for a better life elsewhere. This, in turn, throws into high relief what priorities the West has set for itself — is “novelty art” for the 1% really more important than a human life? — and questions whether art can even draw attention to human-rights catastrophes without exploiting the people it depicts.
These are all provocative notions that are more suggested than really explored, with Godefroi, as Ben Hania’s mouthpiece, never very elegant and — like the marketing-aware artist he is — often more interested in shock value than nuance. The fact that he speaks a kind of awkward Europudding English, even though he is supposedly part American, also doesn’t help. Ben Hania gets in some funny jabs at the contemporary art world, of course, but we’re a long way away from the constantly smart and acerbic takes on that milieu from films such as Palme d’Or winner The Square or Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. The choice to make Sam not directly a war refugee but rather someone who wants to only come to Europe because the love of his life happened to move there — with her now-husband — also dilutes some of the wider political points Ben Hania is trying to make.
That said, after the rather schematic mid-section, Sam will find himself — or rather, the skin on his back — up for auction in the third act, and the material’s different thematic preoccupations start to coalesce into something quite powerful. Even if viewers will still have to connect a few of the dots themselves, there’s a sense that this is the moment when the story finally becomes aware that it is impossible to talk about Syrians in Europe in the 21st century without exploiting their traumas and that using a major humanitarian crisis in fiction as a backdrop will always retain something voyeuristic.
Ironically, this saves the movie from its own self-importance, the sheer existence of the film starting to feel like a beautifully staged and intriguing if necessarily flawed “mise-en-abyme” of its own complex themes and obsessions.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Tanit Films, Cinetelefilms, Twenty Twenty Vision, Kwassa Films, Laika Film, Bac Films
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim
Writer-Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Producers: Nadim Cheikrouha, Habib Attia, Annabella Nezri, Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel, Andreas Rocksen
Cinematography: Christopher Aoun
Production design: Sophie Abdelkefi
Costume design: Randa Khedher
Editing: Marie-Helene Dozo
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Sales: Bac Films
In Levantine Arabic, English, French, Flemish
No rating, 100 minutes