In the opening scene of The Man Who Sold His Skin, a fancy-pants artist walks through an empty gallery, gravely and silently directing two white-gloved workers as they arrange canvases along the walls. We sense that we are watching the preparations for an exhibition opening. The camera glides through the clean, impossibly blank space, until it settles on one piece in particular. We close in on the canvas. We see some illegible text and a dense, perhaps familiar pattern. We close in even further. We see the material the canvas is made of. It’s human skin.
The title, in other words, is not meant to be a metaphor. The Man Who Sold His Skin is literally about a guy who sells his skin. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s film, nominated for a Best International Feature Oscar this year, is at once literal-minded and evocative. It tackles the refugee crisis, capitalism, political repression, and First World hypocrisy within the context of an art-world satire. It’s sometimes confused in conception, but never confusing. It’s a wild, modern-day fable that is lively and thought-provoking … so long as you don’t actually think too hard about it.
Our hero is Sam Ali (a wonderfully charismatic Yahya Mahayni), a young Syrian from Raqqa who is very much in love with Abeer (Dea Liane), a woman from a wealthy family. Despite the fact that Abeer has her share of “respectable” suitors, Sam boldly declares his love for her one day on a public train, much to the amusement of the other passengers. Unfortunately, one of those passengers works for the police, and the way Sam frames his declaration — “It’s a revolution! We want to be free!” — sets off official alarm bells, and he ends up behind bars, being roughed up by the paranoid authorities. Fleeing his captors, Sam sneaks across the border and lands poor and stateless in Lebanon, where he sometimes survives by hitting up art openings and partaking of the free food.
At one of these events, he’s confronted by art dealer Soraya (Monica Bellucci) and a Belgian artist, Jeffrey (Koen De Bouw), the man from the film’s opening scene. Learning of Sam’s problems as a refugee and his inability to travel, Jeffrey has the bright idea of turning the young man’s bare back into a kind of artwork: He tattoos a Schengen visa onto it (which gives the bearer free entry into the vast majority of European countries), and although a tattooed visa itself isn’t exactly a legal document, Sam Ali’s status as a work of art now means that he can go anywhere in the world where he is exhibited.
Or, as Jeffrey helpfully puts it in an interview, “We live in a very dark era where if you are Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian, and so on, you are persona non grata. The walls rise. I just made Sam a commodity, a canvas, so now he can travel around the world. Because in the times we’re living in, the circulation of commodities is much freer than the circulation of human beings. Thus by transforming him into some kind of merchandise, he now will be able, according to the codes of our time, to recover his humanity and his freedom. That’s a paradox, isn’t it?”
This is not, in case you were wondering, a particularly subtle film.
Should it be, though? Perhaps subtlety isn’t what’s called for with such material. The story was loosely inspired by a real-life event, when the now-retired Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (a notorious art-world provocateur who has done things like X-ray blow jobs, tattoo live pigs, build giant machines that turn food into shit, and carve out gothic dump trucks) tattooed an art work on the back of a man named Tim, who still goes on display several times a year. In Sam’s case, he goes from city to city, sleeping in five-star hotels and spending almost all his days sitting on a pedestal in various museums, having been told not to interact with the various people coming to see him. But it soon becomes impossible for him not to respond to what’s happening around, and about, him: A refugee-rights group begins to protest the artwork, and starts demonstrations. Fights break out. Debates rage around his existence. Then there’s the small matter of Abeer: She’s gotten married, and moved to Belgium, but still loves him. They can finally see each other — sort of — but not be with each other.
There’s, like, a lot going on here. Ben Hania has found an exciting conceit with which to probe the peculiar status of statelessness in the modern world, one where art and commerce can move unchecked but humans can’t. As an art-world satire, the film doesn’t work quite as well, even though the character of Jeffrey makes for an effective mouthpiece for the high-minded pretension of that realm. That said, Jeffrey himself seems to be, beneath his smug, bad-boy sneer, a rather self-aware guy, acknowledging that he is at once a genie granting wishes and a kind Mephistophelian figure. (I didn’t come up with those comparisons, by the way; he cites them himself. Again: not subtle.)
The Man Who Sold His Skin makes for engaged viewing — Ben Hania sure as hell knows how to tell a story — but it probably could have used more savagery of one type or another. The idea at its center is so outrageous, so disturbing: The setup feels like it’s one mutation away from becoming a horror-film premise, but it could have easily made for a very dark, corrosive comedy as well. Instead, the picture winds up being neither, and stops short of drawing much blood. It exposes the many hypocrisies hovering around the wild fact of Sam Ali’s existence in this world, but doesn’t wind up doing all that much with them, opting ultimately to become something of a romantic fantasy.
Although Sam’s love for Abeer sets everything in motion, the movie seems more invested in their somewhat predictable romance than the viewer ever is. At the same time, this is not an entirely unwelcome development. Sam Ali is a charming enough character that a part of us will feel relief that the story doesn’t continue down the deeply disturbing path it initially seems to be on. The Man Who Sold His Skin winds up being a surprisingly entertaining movie about some heavy subjects. Don’t be shocked if it wins that Oscar.