In many ways, Kaouther Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin defies categorization. Set within a very recent timeline during which Syria’s war-torn cities purged millions of refugees into Europe and surrounding countries, a lot of what’s explored here—one of those refugees trying desperately to be reunited with the woman he loves—all too poignantly drives home the dire straits in which these populations find themselves. As a satirical send-up of the over-inflated world of contemporary art and its all but meaningless economy of taste, scarcity and demand, it’s at times a bit over the top yet still whip smart. There are moments that feel like caricatures of something actually quite important, and small moments made surprisingly important in their brevity. This mish-mash of notes doesn’t always harmonize nicely, but in the end, the film serves as a strong endorsement for Ben Hania’s artistic vision.
Sam (Yahya Mahayni) is young and in love, engaged to the beautiful Abeer (Dea Liane) who does love him but can’t bring herself to tell her stuffy, rich parents about the nobody she wants to marry. But Sam is elated and makes a scene on the bus they’re riding, leading to his arrest for the public display of affection. Soon, he has to escape the country or risk harsh punishment; while he’s away, Abeer is married off to a suitor who meets her parents’ approval. Lost and alone in a foreign country, Sam stumbles into a posh art gallery in the midst of a party and, through a series of odd circumstances I’m not entirely sure make sense, he meets Jeffery Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), an overdramatic, nihilistic artist who makes Sam an offer he’s in no position to refuse: Godefroi wants to tattoo Sam’s back and sell the work as a piece of art. Looking to make the rebellious statement of all statements, the artist doesn’t tattoo just anything on this refugee’s back—he intricately inks a Schengen visa on Sam’s back, the very travel document he needs to be able to find Abeer in distant Brussels.
All this is a bit comical, to be honest, Ben Hania leaning into the satirical side; De Bouw is so intense as a Very Serious Artist it’s hard to take him seriously at all. As Soraya, his iron-fisted agent and gallery manager, Monica Bellucci is dead-faced and flat, and it’s hard to know if that’s what she was going for or if something is off. Mahayni is charming as a guy just trying to find his way to his beloved, but even Sam becomes slightly insufferable as his ignorance teeters on annoying. As a piece of art embodied, what did he think he’d have to do but sit in the gallery and pretend like he doesn’t hear the tour guide talking about him as if he isn’t there? After all, he isn’t—it’s the art they came to see, not him.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is at its most affecting during Sam’s roller coaster through the refugee experience. He’s penniless and without anywhere to go when he stumbles into a world of privilege. He’s given an incredible, if odd, opportunity, a creative solution to his every problem, but it raises far more questions than it answers. He and Abeer stay in touch, clandestine, long-distance lovers who remain devoted to each other even as her husband wises up about their relationship and threatens Sam in front of her. Though it’s as subtle as a freight train, Ben Hania’s choice to put a visa on Sam’s back evokes the very absurdity of things like borders and passports, visas and immigration laws. It’s all made up, all machinations of governments and bureaucracies that have lost sight of the very reason they exist: to serve their people. If the rest of the film is awkwardly uneven as its satire leaves much to be desired, this aspect at least puts a singular human face on something quite real.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas, including Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater.
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