Now shortlisted in the international feature category, Tunisia’s ambitious entry “The Man Who Sold His Skin” from female writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania (“Beauty and the Dogs”) offers a provocative contemporary take on a Faustian bargain. An audacious but not always palatable mix of drama, tragedy, romance, satire and dark humor, the plot centers on Sam (newcomer Yahya Mahayni), a displaced Syrian with a chip on his shoulder who allows a cryptic art-world guru to use his back as a canvas. Paradoxically, it becomes easier for him to travel to Europe as an artwork than as a refugee. But what he thought of as freedom turns out to be anything but.
Lest anyone think the central idea is farfetched, helmer Ben Hania was inspired by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (seen here in a cameo role), who tattooed and signed the back of a man called Tim. The piece was sold to a German art collector and Tim is contractually obliged to spend a certain amount of time, topless and sitting still, in a gallery every year. But Ben Hania deepens and complicates the idea of a man who sells his skin by making her artistic vessel an angry young man born on what he considers “the wrong side of the world” without much personal agency.
In 2011, after making some ill-considered remarks about freedom and revolution on a Syrian train during a moment of exuberance, Sam is forced to flee his family home in Raqqa for Lebanon. He leaves behind Abeer (gorgeous theater thesp Dea Liane), the woman he loves. Meanwhile, with unrest growing in Syria, Abeer’s family encourages her to marry Ziad (Saad Lostan, unctuous) a diplomat based in Brussels.
After a year in Beirut working an unpleasant, underpaid job, prickly Sam is open to just about anything that will allow him to see Abeer again. When the world’s most expensive living artist, Mephistophelian Belgian-American Jeffrey (“I sell meaning”) Godefroy (played by handsome Belgian actor Koen De Bouw, with devilish dark eyeliner and black fingernail polish) proposes to turn Sam into a work of art worth millions, he takes him up on it.
Making an ironic statement about turning humans into commodities, Godefroy tattoos a large-scale Schengen visa on Sam’s back. Sam will receive one-third of any sale or resale of the artwork, but in return, he must cooperate in good faith by being available and on time for all planned exhibitions.
Looked after by Jeffrey’s shrewd gallerist Soraya (a sympathetic turn by a dyed blond Monica Bellucci), Sam takes to life in a Brussels five-star hotel, but as an exhibit in the Musée Royale, not so much. He feels a bit queasy about seeing his back merchandised on museum shop t-shirts and advertised on gigantic banners. And it doesn’t help that he has misrepresented his “job” to his family and Abeer.
When an organization for the defense of Syrian refugees gets wind of Sam’s gig, they tell him that he’s an exploited victim. Although he defiantly declares that it was his choice, he starts to have his doubts about his decision. These doubts and his unhappiness increase when in short order he is sold to a Swiss collector (no laws against owning a human artwork in Switzerland) and soon thereafter offered for auction. In an over-the-top scene (that will make some think of Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,”) Ben Hania satirizes both the art world and racist prejudices about Arab males and terrorism.
Ben Hania’s screenplay combines the humanitarian crisis in Syria with the vagaries of the international art market to ask some uncomfortable questions about the commodification of a human life. In a narrative jam-packed with ideas and frequent changes of tone, some scenes (for instance, the pimple-popping operation and a media hoax toward the end) come off in questionable taste. But, on the whole, this is a stimulating work that highlights important issues and once again confirms Ben Hania as a rising talent.
Brimming with representations of the human body in painting, as well as idiosyncratic modern art (Jeffrey’s oeuvre supplied by Delvoye), the film provides a good deal of visual pleasure. When Sam, bare chested in a silky blue robe, strolls barefoot through the galleries of the Musée Royale before opening hours, pausing to take in the Old Masters and play with the modernists, one might even feel a twinge of envy for that opportunity.
The clever compositions and sensual, colorful images supplied by Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun (“Capernaum”) also play with notions of separation and artifice by using computer screens, mirrors and odd angles. Equally alluring is composer Amine Bouhafa’s string and trumpet-based score, which also makes space for the occasional opera extract.