The doings of the international art world often seem arcane and over the top, but never moreso than as depicted in The Man Who Sold His Skin. This is a madly dramatic and engrossing melodrama about a political refugee whose unique predicament bundles with it issues pertaining to personal and political identity, the Middle East quagmire, romantic rejection and the outer limits of art world presumption and extravagance. Tunisia’s shortlisted submission in the International Feature Oscar race is a very tasty couscous of fine ingredients and flat-out entertaining enough to warrant significant international exposure.
Tunisian director-screenwriter Kaouther Ben Hania’s follow-up to her 2017 Cannes Un Certain Regard selection Beauty And The Dogs is notable for its gutsy narrative moves, rich visuals and sheer drive, which marks her, along with her notably resourceful and elegant Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun, as talents who should emerge even more decisively before long.
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The sharp filmmaking skills neatly dovetail with the audacity of the storyline, in which Ben Hania takes her hapless hero on a journey from dejected spurned lover to the latest Big Thing on the Euro art scene. The director’s skill at mixing such unlikely and widely diverse ingredients — political and personal, moral and trendy — to create a coherent whole is impressive indeed, indicating that she seems up for any kind of challenge.
Ben Hania is not afraid to be outrageous. For starters, she dares to make her protagonist a short-tempered jerk, an a-hole, in fact. The unprepossessing Sam (Yahya Mahayni, the Best Actor winner in last year’s Venice Film Festival Horizons section) has a nice girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane, with the palest blue eyes ever seen onscreen), who says she loves him. But the fellow seems like a lousy prospect — he’s badly dressed, ill-tempered, a big complainer who’s sorry for himself and prone to rash reactions — and she has another suitor who, while vastly unappealing, is very well fixed.
In short order, Sam becomes a persona non grata in Syria and has to be smuggled into Lebanon. Picking up the trail a year later, we learn that Abeer has married the rich dude in Syria, whereas Sam is working in a chicken factory. He has become an unstable, belligerent lowlife who, upon wandering into an art gallery, tells a strange mascara-wearing looking man that he needs money so that he can get back to Syria to rescue his love from the monster she’s married.
The strange man is intrigued, as perhaps he’s met just the desperate fellow he’s long been looking for to serve as the subject and centerpiece of his next artistic masterpiece. This would be Jeffrey Godefroy (Belgian actor Koen de Bouw), a suave operator known as “the most expensive living artist.” Positively oozing artistic relevance, personal cynicism and great wealth, he emerges at once as a Mephistophelian figure, a dangerous sort who all but dares you to resist his ideas and entreaties.
Godefroy expresses himself through allusive definitive pronouncements. At the flip of a coin he can say both “Life is meaningless” and “I sell meaning,” and in the hapless Sam he sees at once the opportunity to make a statement that he knows will be taken as profoundly creative, profoundly upsetting and, mostly likely, profoundly profitable in the art world.
So commences Sam’s voyage into art world immortality. With nothing to lose, Sam agrees to become Godefroy’s latest canvas. Drop by drop, the artist meticulously inks Sam’s back with an enormous realistic tattoo of a visa (the highly desirable Schengen visa, of course), a major symbol, as the artist sees it, of the era of the persona non grata. “I just made Sam a commodity, a canvas,” the artist announces. By becoming a commodity, he argues, Sam can now travel openly as a human being. “He’s recovered his freedom.”
The “piece,” which Sam has now become, is to spend its day sitting shirtless in a dark, chapel-like art gallery zig-zagged with dramatic lighting. Visitors at the opening are hushed and admiring; Godfroy has created yet another controversial sensation and his assistant, Soraya (a spry and blonde Monica Bellucci), tells Sam, “You’re going to be a big star,” which in a way he does.
Although The Man Who Sold His Skin never overtly becomes a comedy, it nonetheless has a current of very dark humor running through it, something director Ben Hania adroitly modulates as the tensions and cross-currents start piling up. It doesn’t take long for various rights organizations start squawking. “You’re an exploited victim, we can defend you!” one such group insists, while Sam luxuriates in his five-star hotel and amid a sudden rush of attention. Such moments bring Preston Sturges to mind, and the ironies of the situation are lost neither on the filmmaker nor the audience.
Through it all, however, one wonders how long Sam is expected — or will be able — to endure just sitting silently all day while people file through beholding his back, even if he is making more money and living better than he ever has in his life. Abeer and her ghastly husband turn up, with dire consequences, and Sam struggles with the thought that this is undoubtedly the most lucrative gig he’s ever going to get. Also at issue is whether Sam, since he’s become a work of art, can be sold for the many millions Godefroy could certainly obtain. Why not?, seems to be the answer.
If it all weren’t so sad and topically upsetting, both politically and morally, the last stretch of The Man Who Sold His Skin could have been riotously funny. As it stands, this is certainly a film for which you definitely don’t want to know the ending — you can’t imagine, you really can’t.
This is, then, a real original, made by adventurous artists in a small North African industry that’s never attracted much serious attention. But Ben Hania and her team have really come up with something fresh and dynamic here. While it is, to be sure, a Middle Eastern film by identity, it feels quite European, populated with wealthy people frequenting posh settings. More should be heard from its makers.
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