The Man Who Sold His Skin

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Man Who Sold His Skin
"Given that one of the central tenets of Ben Hania's latest film is a debate about form... it's a joy that this extends to almost every frame of the film, many of which are so carefully composed they could hang in a gallery themselves."

Kaouther Ben Hania has shown previously that's she's not afraid to tackle provocative material head-on with Beauty And The Dogs, which pulled no punches in its consideration of a woman's fight for her rights in Tunisia after a rape. Now her latest film, which has been shortlisted for best International Feature at the Oscars, the subject matter is leavened by a love story but is no less sharp in its questioning of the attitudes of society versus an individual's rights.

This story was inspired by a former tattoo artist, Swiss-born Londoner Tim Steiner, who sold his back as an art canvas for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (who pops up briefly as an insurance agent in this film), but Ben Hania expands the tale into more edgy and political territory by considering what would happen if a Syrian refugee was "commodified" in this way. The Syrian in question is Sam Ali (played with a balletic grace by Yahya Mahayni), who has been forced to flee Syria after an ill-advised outburst on a train - sparked by love rather than anger in what is just one of the nice twists of Ben Hania's film. Sam is left with a simmering resentment as a result, not least because the object of his affections, Abeer (Dia Leane), has subsequently been married off to Ziad (Saad Lostan, who virtually slithers into each frame he is in), who works at the country's Embassy in Belgium, in order to get her out of the country.

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Sam takes a rather less salubrious route out of Syria into Lebanon and, in the process of regular trips to an art gallery where he and his mate graze on the food intended for wealthy patrons, encounters a Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen de Bouw). It's a mark of the depth of care that Ben Hania has put into this film that Sam gets caught out in his scam largely by drinking something that is intended to be part of the exhibit - an art/reality distinction that will become more slippery and pointed as the film progresses.

The artist - who goes so far as to describe himself as a Mephistopheles and comes equipped with black eyeliner and nail varnish  - offers Ali a contract. If he agrees to have an artwork tattooed on his back then he will be able to travel anywhere, and more specifically Belgium. After all, as Jeffrey points out, it is much easier for "commodities" to travel the globe than human beings. This is deliberately Faustian but Ben Hania is constantly on the look out for complexity, not simply painting Jeffrey as a bad guy, but rather showing how he is largely up front about what he wants - he'll tattoo a Schengen travel visa on Sam's back, something you can just imagine the art world lapping up, and in return Sam will get a third of the profits from it, under the proviso that he turns up to certain exhibition work with a smile on his face.

Sam is no idiot and, at first it seems a life of cushy hotel suites and room service near the woman he loves is a dream come true but there's an abrasiveness to him that makes him less than compliant in the artistic setting, where he soon realises the full implications of what he has agreed to.

Given that one of the central tenets of Ben Hania's latest film is a debate about form - in this case an living breathing human - and content, the artwork on his back, it's a joy that this extends to almost every frame of the film, many of which are so carefully composed they could hang in a gallery themselves. From the near dancelike choreography that sees Sam move through the art gallery, his cerulean blue silk gown billowing behind him to the moment on the train earlier in the film where a moment of friction between Abeer and Sam is mirrored by the camera pulling back to reveal the jostling of the railway carriage over the tracks.

She and cinematographer Christopher Aoun also frequently make a point of 'framing' Sam within the frame, trapping him in tight spaces or using computer screens and Skype conversations to heighten anxiety and even offer unexpected revelations.

Gradually, we like Sam, begin to bristle at the casual way he is treated by most of those who come to view the art. Not just the belittling way he is referred to as a "good boy" but the way nobody is interested in his face, except as an indicator of something they can be latently racist about. Even a refugee group, who purport to be in his corner, seem to be looking as much for a cause celebre as to help him. All the while, Ben Hania doesn't let Sam off the hook either, exploring the more toxic elements of his masculinity in the face of the situation with Abeer and his interactions with Jeffrey's canny gallery fixer Soraya (played with magnetism by Monica Bellucci). The writer/director also finds time to inject some lighter moments, one of which results in Sam needing "restoration".

Ben Hania also draws on the artworld itself for imagery, at one point creating a twist on a pieta, at another showing Sam looking like Millais' Ophelia in his bath. Some of the intellectual arguments presented here recall the likes of Ruben Ostland's The Square but Ben Handia injects considerable warmth through her love story and intriguing characters, while her plotting remains unexpected and complex to the last.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2021
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Sam Ali, a young sensitive and impulsive Syrian, left his country for Lebanon to escape the war. He finds himself turned into a work of art by a tattoo artist...but at what cost.

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania

Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania

Starring: Monica Bellucci, Koen De Bouw, Rupert Wynne-James, Husam Chadat, Saad Lostan, Najoua Zouhair, Dea Liane, Marc de Panda, Adrienne Mei Irving, Nadim Cheikhrouha, Yahya Mahayni, Jan Dahdoh, Wim Delvoye, Montassar Alaya, Monica Bellucci

Year: 2020

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Tunisia, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden


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The Square