If good art inspires healthy conversations, then it’s safe to call The Man Who Sold His Skin a great film. This surprise Oscar nominee for Best International Feature—Tunisia’s first gong—should get people talking. It’s a smart and snappy take on the zany commodification of the human body. Directed and written by Kaouther Ben Hania (the first Muslim woman ever nominated in this category), The Man Who Sold His Skin provocatively fuses two seemingly disparate worlds. It joins the fast-paced and high-priced business of contemporary art with the rapidly changing and comparatively impoverished world of refugees. The art scene and the global migration crisis are obviously different beasts. However, the film ambitiously flips them to observe how perversely the “haves” of the western world weigh their values.
As Sam Ali (Yahya Mahyni) escapes Syria and begins anew, life isn’t easy. Besides rampant xenophobia and indifference to refugees, work is scarce. Refugees and migrants need permits to work and travel. The work that comes is precarious and on the sly. Sam therefore dabbles in the art world to survive. Put another way, he crashes art exhibits to fill up on free food and booze. The haughty curators and receptionists, however, spot an easy mark.
A Living Canvas
Being an obvious outsider nevertheless lands Sam a gig that changes his life. When Soraya (Monica Bellucci) informs Sam that she’d be happy to make him a doggy bag if he’d exit her premiere, her boss, Jeffrey (Koen De Bouw) spies his next masterpiece. Jeffrey, see, is one of those hugely overinflated artists in the fashion of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. His name sets the money printers blazing. He makes Sam a proposal that one can only describe as indecent. Namely, he asks Sam to be his living canvas.
The premise for The Man Who Sold His Skin is totally brilliant. Jeffrey commodifies Sam and exploits a refugee’s necessity and mobility for artistic purposes. He tattoos a trade visa to Sam’s back, thus making a statement about how much easier the refugee can move when he is classified as goods. Simply put, high-priced paintings move more freely than people do.
However, being Jeffrey’s living canvas also means being his employee. Sam submits to putting himself on display at travelling exhibits. High-minded tourists and culture vultures come to admire Jeffrey’s work and discuss migration as a theme or abstraction. The human element is null. Sam’s freedom, meanwhile, depends on both Jeffrey’s say-so and where his owner resides. People can buy Sam—or, rather, the art on his back—and he’s contractually obligated to model where they please. Cue some cringe-worthy parties full of white people.
Skin and Square
As Sam’s plight draws worldwide attention and advocates for migrants’ rights rally for a cause—essentially commodifying him, too—Ben Hania creates an exchange between the controversy the art ignites. The film provides one scene after another to ignite a talking point. In the fashion of Ruben Östlund’s The Square, The Man Who Sold His Skin playfully skewers the art world. Satire isn’t necessarily Ben Hania’s forte, though. Social commentary is. Each set piece invites audiences to contemplate the human elements that fight for space within a frame. These images are often mediated as Sam connects to loved ones abroad via Skype calls with his relationship determined by the portrait they present.
Eventually, Jeffery’s experiment with Sam draws charges of prostitution and human trafficking—neither feels right, but not necessarily wrong. This is ucky business. The film doesn’t content itself with the question of who has the right to place value on a human life. Instead, it ultimately challenges anyone for bringing money into the equation for human rights matters like mobility and access.
Mona Lisa’s Smile
There are admittedly a few too many films going on here. A love story between Sam and his former girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane) stretches thinly predictable, for one, while De Bouw’s artist never quite feels credible. On the other hand, Bellucci admirably elevates Soraya beyond a one-note character. Some characters border upon cartoonish as archetypes. However, Sam is hardly the first person to make a deal with a shady character to survive. As a result, though, the film’s shaky tone never quite lets the comedy stick the landing. Perhaps that’s the point, though, as The Man Who Sold His Skin invites one to chuckle uncomfortably. It doesn’t play like satire because it’s so perfectly plausible.
On the other hand, there are few cinematic canvasses as grand as the human body. Ben Hania knows how to frame Mahyni’s physique. Without fetishizing his skin or rendering sensuous the muscles that the camera caresses, she shows the artistic field of a subject’s body. The artist just has to remember that there’s a human being within. She lets Mahyni enliven his character with full blood, injecting more life and mirth than one could imagine behind Mona Lisa’s smile.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is in digital release April 9.