Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s strikingly impressive Oscar-nominated film The Man Who Sold His Skin marries unlikely worlds…that of the art world and the plight of the refugee. Beautifully staged and balancing satirical comedy with dark drama, it is a remarkable film and one that highlights the undeniable talent of the filmmaker.
The film has already proven to be a festival success as well as impressing critics, and with the casting of a blonde Monica Bellucci in a key role it has the credentials to expand way beyond any simple art house home. Globetrotting through Beirut, Brussels and Raqqa, this is a prescient, entertaining and challenging film to be celebrated.
The title rather gives away the plot…but this story of Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) who makes the decision to let his body become a tattooed living work of art and be exhibited in a museum, is also about freedom, perception and escape.
Inspired by a real-life artwork - Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed the back of former Tim Steiner, with the pair’s deal being that several times a year Steiner would sit in galleries around the world as a living exhibition - this story of a refugee and his mission to be reunited with a lost love works well in itself as a personal drama, but at the same time it is an intelligent and scathing look at the art world, and sits nicely alongside Ruben Ostlund’s 2017 film The Square, about a controversial new exhibit at a Stockholm museum.
In The Man Who Sold His Skin, Sam sneaks into a Lebanon gallery to try and get food, but after Soraya (Bellucci) reveals what he is up to, her artist boss Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Boew) plies Sam with booze and proposes an unlikely artistic project – a tattoo that will recreate Europe’s Schengen visa, which allows travel access to 22 EU countries, and the very thing that Sam cannot legally get.
Sam is desperate to find a way to get to Belgium to search for his now-married ex-girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane), who he had been forced to leave behind. The story of why Sam left both his girlfriend and his homeland is the moving spine of the story, though the witty dissection of the art world provides smart humour and striking visual moments. The film is beautifully shot by Christopher Aoun, who was cinematographer on Capernaum.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is a film of real charm and insight, blessed with a series of impressive central performances, particularly by newcomer Mahayni. More importantly it marks out Kaouther Ben Hania as a major international film talent.
Tunisia-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden, 2020, 104mins
Dir/scr Kaouther Ben Hania
Production company Tanit Films, Cinetelefilms, Twenty TwentyVision Filmproduktion, Kwassa Films, Laika Film & Television
International sales BAC Films
Producers Nadim Cheikhrouha, Habib Attia, Annabella Nezri, Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel, Andreas Rocksen
Cinematography Christopher Aoun
Editor Marie-Hélène Dozo
Music Amine Bouhafa
Main cast Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Monica Bellucci, Koen de Bouw, Darina Al Joundi, Christian Vadim