From Tunisia, Kaouther Ben Hania directs the offbeat “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” a spoof and meditation on the art world and international conflict.
The film contains aspects of a love story, a mystery and a social commentary. It is multi-faceted and somewhat difficult to define. At times it is poignant and playful, at other moments it is savage and direct. No matter how you see it, this odd and detailed film keeps you guessing.
The plot is inspired by artist Wim Delvoye who tattooed a man’s entire back and sold it as a permanent work of art. In the film, Sam (Yahya Mahayni) is a Syrian in love with Abeer (Dia Liane) and he declares his love on a public streetcar. After much celebration, Sam is arrested and put in prison because he equated love with revolution.
Sam’s relatives help him escape and he goes to Abeer’s house to cement plans for engagement. Abeer is in the company of Ziad (Saad Lostan). Sam is crushed. He goes to Lebanon and Abeer moves to Belgium, married to Ziad.
Sam is adrift, having no money. He hits up art openings for free food. There, after almost getting thrown out, Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) a conceptual artist tells Sam that he is looking for a human back to do a full scale art project upon and his would be wonderful. Sam refuses outright. But after some reflection, he consents. Sam needs money and he wants to rescue Abeer in Belgium. As an enemy of the government, Sam cannot travel.
Godefroi paints a large visa in tattoo across Sam’s back and this secures his reason for travel as a living piece of art. At first Sam is over the moon, thinking himself free to marry and do as he pleases, but as an actual work of art, Sam is bossed around like an animal, no more than a product or a block of granite.
Yahya Mahayni gives a terrific performance. As an exuberant lover in the beginning of the film, he is akin to Roberto Benigni, then he becomes Kafkaeque and bereft. Koen De Bouw is also evocative as the cynical artist who cares only for his work. Monica Bellucci has an outing as a weird dominant art handler.
This is ultimately a tale that moves into many genres, yet it is mainly a love story set against the conditions of capitalism in the age of the artist known as Banksy. In theme and tone, the film is a close cousin to Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” from 2017. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is the first Tunisian film nominated for the Best International category, at this year’s Oscars. Lively thoughtful and tense, the film stays with you.
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