“The Man Who Sold His Skin”, which was nominated for Best International Film Oscar in last month, tries to balance itself between two very different plot elements. At first, it begins as a serious refugee drama, and then it enters the absurd world of European artwork business along with its refugee hero, and the overall result is rather uneven despite several good moments oscillating between humor and pathos.
Yahya Mahayni, who received the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Horizontal section of the Venice International Film Festival in last year, plays a Syrian guy named Sam Ali, and the first act of the film shows us how Sam ended up being stuck in Beirut, Lebanon during several years. In 2011, things became unstable in Syria due to the Arab Spring, but Sam was not concerned much because he was simply happy to be with his lover Abeer (Dea Lian). Although Abeer was expected to marry someone much more promising compared to Sam, that did not dissuade Sam at all from pursuing her more, and they eventually came to have an impromptu public engagement on a train.
However, Sam happened to make a bad choice of word while expressing his irrepressible bliss and excitement in front of other passengers, and that subsequently gets him into a very serious trouble. Although he manages to avoid the worst shortly after arrested by the police for that, it goes without saying that he must leave his country as soon as possible, so he escaped to Lebanon after notifying Abeer on his departure in advance.
Some time later, Sam is now staying somewhere in Beirut while earning his meager living via sexing chicks (Yes, this instantly took me back to the similar scenes in Lee Isaac Chung’s recent Oscar-nominated film “Minari” (2020)), and he has been quite frustrated with his current status. Although he sometimes contacts with his family as well as Abeer, he still cannot go back to Syria as the circumstance becomes more dangerous due to the ongoing civil war, and Abeer already moved to Brussels, Belgium shortly after marrying that promising dude. He surely wants to meet her again despite that, but he does not have a visa for entering Belgium, which is quite difficult to get for him considering his current status as a refugee without any support or vouch.
And then there comes an unlikely chance to Sam on one day. When he is gleaning some food for the attendees at a posh art exhibition, he happens to be noticed by a renowned artist named Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), and Godefroi and his artwork dealer Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci) propose to Sam a rather weird offer. In exchange of a special visa for him to enter Belgium in addition to a considerable amount of money, Godefroi is going to use Sam as a living artwork, and all Sam will have to do is getting tattooed on his back by Godefroi and then letting himself being exhibited in museums and galleries.
Sam initially declines this offer, but then, of course, he comes to change his mind after reminded of how hopeless his current status has been. What Godefroi wants from him does not seem to be particularly demanding or humiliating, and, most of all, he cannot possibly say no to an opportunity to reunite with Abeer at last. Once the deal is done between him and Godefroi, Sam is quickly taken away from Beirut, and Godefroi is quite ready to work on Sam’s back.
What follows next is a series of absurd moments not so far from Oscar-nominated Swedish film “The Square” (2017). Like that film, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” also has some fun with how silly and outrageous things can be in the world of artwork business, and the main source of humor in the film comes from how Sam is often treated like as an artwork to be exhibited or traded instead of a real human being. Godefroi and Waldy eagerly present Sam and his tattooed back as an artistic statement on the current refugee issues, and they are certainly excited when the exhibition of Sam’s tattooed back draws lots of attention from collectors and art dealers while also drawing the anger and fury from a group of refugees.
You may think this is too absurd to be plausible, but the screenplay by director/writer Kaouther Ben Hania was actually inspired by a similar living artwork by Wim Delvoye, who incidentally appears briefly as a minor supporting character in the film. Yes, Delvoye really exhibited a guy having Delvoye’s tattoo design on his back, and, like Sam in the film, that guy in question is contractually obliged to spend a certain amount of time for exhibitions.
The movie would be more entertaining for us if it pushed its satirical elements further, but it instead focuses more on its serious social issue while our hero comes to reconsider his Faustian deal, and that is where it begins to falter. Although Mahayni dutifully carries the film well on his back, his engaging performance is often limited by a number of blunt plot contrivances during the last act, and the other main cast members including Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, and Monica Bellucci are mostly stuck in their thankless roles.
On the whole, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” does not work that well despite the rich potentials for satire and social commentary in its story and characters. In my consequential opinion, the movie is the weakest Best International Film Oscar nominee of this year, but it does draw my attention at least, and I hope its director will soon move onto better things to come.