Dreamy, sleek and full of bite, Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold his Skin is a searing look at both the contemporary art world and the refugee crisis. Ben Hania rolls up two seemingly opposed worlds and certainly packs a punch with this irreverent and shockingly relevant glimpse at the art and the artist.
Sam Ali (played by the unforgettable newcomer Yahya Mahayni, who took away the Horizon Award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance) is in love with Abeer (Dea Liane). However, due to both the unstable living conditions in Syria and her family’s expectations, Abeer moves to Belgium– without Sam. Desperate to be with her and leave Syria, his luck changes when he meets with sulfurous artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw). Thus the deal is struck: Sam is granted money beyond measure and the visa of his freedom for the skin on his back, the canvas for Jeffrey’s latest piece.
Perhaps most shocking about this film is that it actually began as a true story. Citing her inspiration, Ben Hania mentions ‘Tim’, the artpiece which is tattooed on the back of Tim Steiner by artist Wim Deloye and sold to a German art collector for a whopping €150,000. In a morbid twist, when Steiner dies, his skin will be framed, and likely on permanent exhibition.
Though it would be easy to dedicate a whole film to the shock value of such a Fasutian tale, Ben Hania digs far deeper, instead rooting the film and its characters in a strong emotional core- which upends the balance of artist and art- and in doing so, creates a conflict of Shakesperian proportions and the most memorable cinematic experience I’ve had in years.
Setting this film apart from being merely a satirical look at the absurdities of the art world is the provocative musings of freedom that Ben Hania probes at through Sam’s story. And yet, it never infantilizes Sam to being the poor refugee who is out of his depth. Instead it examines freedoms of all kinds even as Jeffrey quietly admits to Sam that ‘the only thing worse than being in their circle, is being out of it’.
What elevates Ben Hania’s film above the similar tales of refugee escape is the surprising but genuine comedy imbued throughout it. Even more refreshing is that Sam is never the butt of the joke; rather it is Jeffrey, his ice cold assistant Soraya (played superbly by Monica Belluci) and their high-falutin ideas and almost sacred devotion to art and fame that is repeatedly poked at for being as utterly absurd as it is.
It is truly a pity that this film will likely see a VOD release with the year that we’re in, because it is undoubtedly a film made for the big screen and the collective experience only a film theatre can bring. This film, wild as it may seem on paper, is nothing compared to what unfurls on screen through Ben Hania’s masterful and detailed direction. Every shot is visually intrinsic and so aesthetically pleasing it’s almost impossible to tear your eyes away. More so than this, it is filled to the brim with genuinely shocking moments that result in that glorious sound of a theatre of hundreds gasping at the same time. There were more than a few instances where, had it not been for my mask, my jaw would have been on the floor. And yet, for all its exaggerated satire, Ben Hania’s script, coupled with such brilliant and cohesive performances, these moments of shock and awe never once lose their tenacious impact, instead they merely get bigger, bolder and more memorable than the last.
Ben Hania’s film is a feast for the senses: it’s a tapestry on a screen. While some may cry ‘style over substance’, I feel that would be missing the point entirely. The world of contemporary art is essentially one of smoke and mirrors, seeking to shock, wanting to provoke, but only within the confines of museums or fine-heeled institutions. Ben Hania entrenches us within this world in all its sublime glory from the cinematography (Christopher Aoun) to the music (Amin Bouhafa). However, what carries this film, what undercuts this beauty and steals the show, is Mahayni’s Sam who doesn’t care for Jeffrey’s pomp and circumstance, who stays still as Bouhafa’s score swells around him, unmoved, who frequently runs away from or stares directly into the camera, and who challenges not only the world in which he finds himself, but the film as a whole. This is where Ben Hania’s film shines, it doesn’t get caught up in grand questions of the role of art in society, or try to play devil’s advocate for such ostentatious displays of artistic grandeur, but instead focuses the film on Sam; a young man who just wants to be reunited with the love of his life.
Already proving to be a darling of the European awards circuit, The Man Who Sold his Skin is bound to make waves on an international scale. Timely, cutting, and ultimately uplifting, Ben Hania’s tour de force is not to be missed and is the perfect food for thought to distract you from these quarantined days.