“The Man Who Sold His Skin” represents a small handful of long-overdue firsts — it’s the first Tunisian film nominated for Best International Feature at the Oscars, thereby making director Kaouther Ben Hania the first Muslim woman who’s ever been invited to compete in this category — but for all of the project’s barrier-breaking success there’s also something naggingly familiar about the choice to honor it alongside heavyweights such as “Another Round” and “Collective.”
It’s not every year that voters are confronted with a glossy romantic melodrama that leverages the Syrian refugee crisis into the smirking kind of art world satire that Ruben Östlund made with “The Square,” and yet Ben Hania’s genre-defying film would seem even more unprecedented if not for the context provided by a smattering of recent Oscar winners and also-rans: “The Lives of Others,” Denis Vileneuve’s “Incendies,” and before that, cultural phenomena like “Life Is Beautiful.”
The Academy, we remember, has a soft spot for movies that spin contrived yarns against the backdrop of humanitarian disasters; movies that look at police states and/or genocides through such fanciful lenses that they end up obscuring the banality of the evils they seek to clarify. The more bizarre “The Man Who Sold His Skin” becomes, the less original it gets.
Director Ben Hania’s premise is certainly a novel one, if also a bit one-note — it’s the kind of clever and irresistible idea that can trick even the best filmmakers into chasing their own tails. It came to her at the Louvre one day in 2012, where she encountered a living work by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye called “Tim,” which is named after the man on whose flesh it’s been tattooed.
To judge by “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” Ben Hania’s imagination wasn’t tickled by the aesthetics of the piece so much as the logistics of its presentation; the contract stipulated how Tim was only entitled to a share of the profits if he agreed to pose in various galleries on demand whenever the art was put on display. Oh, and about those profits… how do you sell a canvas that’s inked into someone’s back? How could Tim ever live to see that money? How does the literal commodification of the human body affect its place in the world?
It’s that last question that seems to have most excited Ben Hania, and one that her latest film — her first since 2017’s “Beauty and the Dogs” — poses in a truly wild assortment of ways. Her story begins in Raqqa circa 2011, where a sinewy and charismatic striver named Sam (arresting newcomer Yahya Mahayni) chooses the wrong place to propose to his loving but reluctant girlfriend Abeer (the luminous Dea Liane, who conveys her character’s high-class status in a role that leaves her little room to do anything else). “It’s a revolution, so let’s be free!” Sam announces to a train car full of strangers, whipping into an impromptu wedding party as the scene assumes the magical feeling of modern folklore, the kind of apocryphal tale that passes from one generation to the next like a family heirloom.
But like everything in life, this perfect moment is ruined by some random person filming it on their phone. The next thing Sam knows, he’s being detained by pro-Assad police who object to his call for revolution, Abeer is matched with some rich schmuck who relocates her to Dusseldorf before Syria can deteriorate any further, and our boy suddenly finds himself thousands of miles and dozens of borders away from the woman of his dreams.
Enter the Devil — or, at least, someone like him. Played by Belgian actor Koen De Bouw (splitting the difference between Jeff Koons and Claes Bang) and billed as “the most expensive living artist,” Jeffrey Godefroi may not be Satan himself, but he’s close enough to offer Sam a Faustian bargain. Jeffrey will transform Sam into a piece of art — allowing him to be shipped freely around the world as a commodity that isn’t subject to the travel restrictions imposed upon people — so long as Sam agrees to be treated as such. “You want my soul?” Sam asks. “I want your back,” Jeffrey replies. And he gets it, inking a novelty check-sized Schengen passport that stretches from the nape of Sam’s neck all the way down to his tailbone. Goodbye Syria, hello European art snobs (one of whom is played by Monica Belluci, lending her star power to the nothing role of Jeffrey’s mercenary assistant).
At this point, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is curiously uncommitted to its satire; Ben Hania’s storytelling shares its hero’s bemused weariness (you can feel the film rolling its eyes at the reporter who proclaims that Jeffrey “turns worthless objects into works that cost millions and millions of dollars just by signing them”), but it’s still locked into a certain lovesickness. Amine Bouhafa’s whirling classical score glazes Ben Hania’s direction with a seriousness that doesn’t allow much room for the absurdity to come, and the uncomplicated straightforwardness of the film’s early scenes anticipates a tale that doesn’t balance its different tones so much as it travels back and forth between them.
There’s a certain freedom in that, perhaps, but also a deep frustration — as Sam discovers first-hand upon arriving in Germany and finding himself alone in the strange limbo that separates the privileged from the damned. Ben Hania all but abandons the emotional core of her story as she unpacks the paradoxes of someone who becomes merchandise in order to assert his inherent value as a man. The movie slumps towards satire through an awkward series of sketch-like scenes that belabor their self-evident ironies, as Sam poses in museums for hours on end and retreats to a five-star hotel where he’s kept like a tiger in a velvet cage.
Abeer is just a few blocks away, but she feels no closer to Sam than she did when he was in Syria. At one point, Sam is reprimanded for talking to a group of school children who come to gawk at him (art is supposed to speak to us, but only figuratively). Later, in the film’s most amusing visual gag, a sign that says “this exhibition is currently being restored” is placed in front of Sam’s perch while he gets some back acne drained by a dermatologist, a process that Ben Hania shoots with the pus-forward fetishism of a Dr. Pimple Popper fan.
Mahayni gives a lithe and agitated performance as the living embodiment of how the moneyed world imposes meaning on desperate people, but “The Man Who Sold His Skin” stretches itself so thin that you can almost see its veins struggling to circulate the blood Ben Hania needs to bring her story home. She eventually finds herself having to choose between heart and muscle, as the movie can only land its punchlines by ditching the romance at its core. At least those late plot twists are humdingers of the highest order; some might be offended by how glibly Ben Hania squeezes a mote of heist-like enjoyment from some of the most horrific imagery of the 21st century, but by that point in Sam’s journey, he can only reclaim his identity behind the smokescreen of Western fears. Of course, rationalizing it is one thing, and believing it is another.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and in virtual cinemas. It will be available on VOD on Tuesday, April 12, and streaming on Hulu starting Thursday, April 22.