Dealing with deals

Kaouther Ben Hania on Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut and The Man Who Sold His Skin

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kaouther Ben Hania: “It’s basically that the Faust legend is our daily bread.”
Kaouther Ben Hania: “It’s basically that the Faust legend is our daily bread.”

Kaouther Ben Hania’s gripping The Man Who Sold His Skin (Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature Film), shot by Christopher Aoun (Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum) with a score from Amin Bouhafa (Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu and Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine with Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine), stars Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, and Monica Bellucci.

Connections to the auction scene with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, Kim Novak sitting in the museum in Vertigo, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s white lie in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Faust, peacocks, and the “long journey in preparation” for writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania, all came up in the first part of our in-depth conversation on Tunisia’s Oscar submission The Man Who Sold His Skin.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Abeer (Dea Liane) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “The scene in the train when she tells him ‘I love you!’ he is opening his tail like a peacock, becoming crazy.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Abeer (Dea Liane) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “The scene in the train when she tells him ‘I love you!’ he is opening his tail like a peacock, becoming crazy.” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

Sam (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian refugee, agrees to become a living canvas because “by transforming him into merchandise, he can travel freely.” His love Abeer (Dea Liane) is recently married, living in Brussels, and having a Schengen visa tattooed on his back seems to be the only way for Sam to reach her. Famously provocative artist, Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw), came up with the idea, and aided by his gallerist Soraya (Monica Bellucci), they embark on this most Mephistophelean of artworks. Sam’s is not the only deal with the devil in this scathing, funny, and punctilious depiction of our divided world.

With Paris in lockdown, Kaouther Ben Hania joined me on Zoom for a conversation on The Man Who Sold His Skin.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination!

Kaouther Ben Hania: Thank you!

AKT: You have what the film is about already in the title and you start with the carrying in of the skin. It’s very much not a film that is targeted towards the outcome, right? It’s about the how and the why things evolve the way they do.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Soraya (Monica Bellucci) and Sam (Yahya Mahayni) with the dead mother: “Yes, it was a reference to Truffaut …”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Soraya (Monica Bellucci) and Sam (Yahya Mahayni) with the dead mother: “Yes, it was a reference to Truffaut …” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

KBH: Yes, sure, when you do a movie you do a movie about the process, about something evolving. So yes, you are totally right.

AKT: The deal with the devil is a prominent trope, and you are showing us throughout, other deals of the devil that people are making. It’s not just your main character, but I feel it’s an exploration of deals with devils everybody is making. Can you talk a bit about your Mephistopheles trope here?

KBH: Yes, we are having deals all day in our modern life. It’s basically since we are social animals, we need deals. And as you said, in this movie I wanted to revisit the Faust legend but in our modern world. So in Faust he is selling his soul to the devil. And since the soul is in a way a religious thing that is not very concrete, and since we are living in a world that wants concrete things, something more tangible that we can touch in exchange, I had this idea about selling the skin as the most intimate and visible part for ourselves.

And the movie has a lot of deals: his girlfriend has a deal marrying this guy to escape the war so she can have a better future in Europe. All the characters are making all the time deals and we are in this era of the triumph of liberalism, capitalism, so we are all the time dealing with deals, selling something and giving something instead. It can be money but sometimes it’s favour for favour - which is another way to deal. It’s basically that the Faust legend is our daily bread. If I can say that.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I wanted to revisit the Faust legend but in our modern world. So in Faust he is selling his soul to the devil.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I wanted to revisit the Faust legend but in our modern world. So in Faust he is selling his soul to the devil.” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

AKT: That’s beautifully put! I liked how much you could weave into one small dialogue - “I could give you a flying carpet” - “Are you a genie?” - “No, perhaps Mephistopheles.” “You want my soul?” Who cares about souls nowadays? “No, I want your back.” I like how you are taking tropes and also cinema references, turning them on their heads. I am thinking for example of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups and the dead mother!

KBH: Yes! Bravo! I love this movie. I wanted to make this citation, to quote it in a way. So yes, it was a reference to Truffaut, a very clear reference.

AKT: It’s so funny how Monica Bellucci responds and gets it. She says “Hey, you are not in school anymore!” You are not Jean-Pierre Léaud.

KBH: No! Exactly.

AKT: With the auction scene, I was thinking of North by Northwest and Cary Grant.

KBH: Yes! [Kaouther gives me two thumbs up] You saw everything, I’m ashamed, because you are like entering in my kitchen! Yes, I’ve watched this scene a lot of times. I watched all the auction scenes in cinema to see how other filmmakers film this kind of scene. But this scene is great in North By Northwest.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I had this idea about selling the skin as the most intimate and visible part for ourselves.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw) with Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I had this idea about selling the skin as the most intimate and visible part for ourselves.” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

AKT: It’s great where you are going with it! Oh, wait, I have another one. When Abeer is sent by her husband to visit Sam, the blouse she is wearing is mirroring the wallpaper and I was thinking of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.

KBH: No, I didn’t think about this one. It wasn’t in my references because, I’m ashamed to say this, to this day I have never watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is a shame, you know. It’s like this movie everybody watches and you are the only one. But there’s another shot. Hitchcock again. Some far inspiration from Vertigo. Abeer sits in the museum and we see her bun from the side.

AKT: Yeah, the chignon.

KBH: Exactly. This for me was a clin d'œil to Vertigo and Kim Novak sitting in the museum.

AKT: Your cinematography is wonderful. You must have worked a lot with your cinematographer on the details of the composition because there are so many brilliant shots. Not just the ones with the artworks, but from the start. For instance on the train you have the lavender balloons. When Sam is hiding on the back of the truck, he is wearing a plaid shirt among the blue plaid bags. Tell me about your work with the cinematographer!

Kaouther Ben Hania on Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I watched all the auction scenes in cinema to see how other filmmakers film this kind of scene. But this scene is great in North by Northwest.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “I watched all the auction scenes in cinema to see how other filmmakers film this kind of scene. But this scene is great in North by Northwest.” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

KBH: Yes, we worked a lot and I had a clear vision about it. It’s a constructed vision and I had a lot of references. I was thinking about every scene, how to make it fit with the character’s journey. I storyboarded a lot alone. Then when the cinematographer arrived, I shared with him all. When I write in general, in this process I gather a lot of material. I love it when I do research and I stop writing the script and I’m just wondering about the dress, you know, and the colour and all the details are coming together.

I write in the morning and in the afternoon I try to find some interesting visual thing. During preproduction, when you have more people coming to the project, I’m sharing with them the script. I share also with the costume designer, the set designer, the DP all the material I have so we can think about how together we can contract all the worlds. To discuss colours, to discuss storytelling. You have all these wonderful tools to tell a scene. Also it was a tight budget movie and a very ambitious visual vision. I don’t know if we can say this.

AKT: We can.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Soraya (Monica Bellucci) and Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “All the characters are making all the time deals …”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Soraya (Monica Bellucci) and Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “All the characters are making all the time deals …” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

KBH: But I had an ambitious movie in my head. I knew that with the budget we had I can’t do everything. We had to be maximally prepared to not lose time on shooting to secure the wonderful shots I’m dreaming about. It was a long journey in preparation and talking, talking, talking all day with the DP.

AKT: He did Capernaum, didn’t he?

KBH: Exactly. And when they proposed to me Christopher, it was the German co-producer of the movie. I love Capernaum, it’s one of my favourite movies, but the light in Capernaum is naturalistic. It’s beautiful lighting but it’s too natural. I told them that it’s not at all the style of my movie, which is more like a tale. I wanted a lot of colour and fragmentation of light and colour, so the German co-producer told me “You should talk to Christopher because he is not this kind of DP who has his own style and is just putting it in every story.” And when we started talking together it was just wonderful, because he is the kind of guy who has a large palette.

When Sam (Yahya Mahayni) is hiding on the back of the truck, he is wearing a plaid shirt among the blue plaid bags.
When Sam (Yahya Mahayni) is hiding on the back of the truck, he is wearing a plaid shirt among the blue plaid bags. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Let’s move on to animals. I noticed the three appearances of the orange cat, which I liked very much. The middle appearance is clearly to comfort us. But also the theme of the peacock. Peacocks are everywhere in your film. Peacocks are behind Monica Bellucci, they are behind the mother, live peacocks, faux peacocks, peacocks in paintings. What is it with you and peacocks? There are also the Delvoye pigs, but that is another matter.

KBH: You’ve watched it really carefully, the movie! Which is always a pleasure, noticing all those details. What can I say about peacocks? I love peacocks, I find them very majestic animals. And this idea at the beginning of the movie, you know his working in this chicken factory, and he says “I want to be like these chicks”, I want the system to accept me because I’m stateless, I don’t have papers and I’m fed up with this situation - I want to be a chick. And for me the character inside him, let’s say in an unconscious way, he is as majestic as a peacock. That the scene in the train when she tells him “I love you!” he is opening his tail like a peacock, becoming crazy.

AKT: That’s beautiful, yeah.

KBH: By the way, I hadn’t thought about this before. I’m making this up now.

AKT: That’s great. I didn’t think about that peacock connection to Sam before.

Kaouther Ben Hania on Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “Let’s say in an unconscious way, he is as majestic as a peacock.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Sam (Yahya Mahayni): “Let’s say in an unconscious way, he is as majestic as a peacock.” Photo: courtesy of Tanit Films

KBH: I wanted something like a subliminal motif, you know, in the movie. I love peacock feathers and the colour. I had a lot of fun doing this movie. It was very difficult, very tough, but I wanted to put in the elements that I love and the aesthetic that I wanted for this movie, so the peacock story can be seen like this.

  • Read what Kaouther Ben Hania said about Wim Delvoye and the Musée du Louvre, casting her film, working with extras, the eye of a child, Beauty And The Dogs, and Shirin Neshat.
  • Read what Yahya Mahayni told us about getting under the skin of The Man Who Sold His Skin.
  • The Man Who Sold his skin is in UK cinemas from September 24.

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