There is a wonderful visual joke early in Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, The Man Who Sold His Skin. A truck filled with check-patterned laundry bags pulls up and out climbs man-on-the-run Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) wearing a shirt with the same pattern. For a brief moment I was transported back to the ZAZ (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) comedies of the 1980s, Airplane, Top Secret and Police Squad.
However, the film that The Man Who Sold His Skin will most put audiences in mind of is The Square, Ruben Östlund’s satire of the art world. Which is to suggest it has something to say about the commodification of modern art. Sam Ali is a Syrian in love with a young woman, Abeer (Dea Liane), who is somewhat above his social station. During a train journey, in which she is afraid of being seen by someone who knows her family, she confesses her love for Sam Ali. This prompts him to stand up, declare a revolution of sorts and ask if there is a Sheikh on board to marry them. In seconds there is a spontaneous party – dancing and ululation – of the sort you wouldn’t see on London Underground outside of a Saturday night.
Sam Ali’s declaration leads to his arrest. The year is 2011, just before the so-called Arab Spring. Fortunately, his interrogator knows Sam Ali’s family and allows him the opportunity to escape. Sam Ali flees to Lebanon, where he works in a poultry processing plant, sneaking into an art gallery during private views to enjoy the catering. Incidentally, there is an entirely London sub-culture of people – liggers – who do exactly that, mostly middle-aged or older, unemployed or semi-retired social misfits, who slip into Cork Street art openings and linger, glass in hand, until the drinks finish. You’ll see them closest to the door where the food trays come out.
At one private view, Sam Ali is approached by the Belgian artist, Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen de Boew) who offers him a way out – to become a living artwork, with a Schengen visa tattooed on his back, giving him unrestricted travel through Europe. Sam Ali hastily agrees, consenting to be displayed in an art gallery and then sold as art, auctioned like any painting.
Ben Hania’s film was inspired by the work of Belgian artist, Wim DeIvoye, who tattooed the back of an Australian former tattoo parlour manager, Tim Steiner, and displayed Tim in museums – upon Tim’s death, his back will be skinned, with the skin being framed permanently. Like Sam Ali, Tim was sold at auction to a collector (in Tim’s case, to Rik Reinking) and also received one-third of the proceeds. Unlike Sam Ali, Tim is reportedly pretty chilled at the prospect. The film has another antecedent, Roald Dahl’s 1952 short story, Skin.
The film is a veritable firework display of ideas about the representation of refugees, exploitation and the relationship between art and its audience. At one point, Sam Ali gets off his pedestal to talk to a group of French-speaking schoolgirls, only in this gallery, the artwork is warned against touching the public, not the other way around. A Syrian expatriate group approaches Sam Ali in his hotel room to get him to denounce the artist and the gallery; Sam Ali obstinately refuses. His main motivation is to be reunited with Ameer, who has moved to Belgium with her new husband, a former Syrian diplomat.
As in The Square, there is a moment when the living artwork seeks to provoke; at this point that the drama becomes heavy-handed. There is even a cameo from the black-flagged terrorist group Daesh.
Surprisingly, The Man Who Sold His Skin was nominated for a Best International Feature Oscar – it lost out to Another Round. Admittedly 2020 was not a great year for non-English language cinema but there were better films to recognise, notably Charlene Favier’s intense drama, Slalom, about a teenage downhill skiing prodigy exploited by her trainer. Ben Hania’s film veers towards the cartoon, dealing in broad strokes. It has a second great gag involving ‘artwork under reconstruction’ but in essence is not tonally far from a Hollywood movie. It does have visual grace notes: Sam Ali wandering around the museum in a flowing blue robe like a fashion model and his delicate treatment by white-gloved auction assistants. Much of the film is in English but for all the ideas that it generates, the film rarely gets under the skin of its subject. It is not a character study rather a think piece, but it veers – unlike the best art – into kitsch.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is screening in select cinemas now!