"...more compelling to think about and discuss than it is to actually watch"

A Canvas of Humanity

(050821) The Man Who Sold His Skin is a good film that's not quite as intriguing and extraordinary as its title might suggest. It is about a Syrian war refugee who takes extreme action and agrees to become a living art piece to avoid deportation.

It combines a gritty look at the European immigrant crisis with some wickedly funny satire of the art world with a tender love story. The film may be a bit overambitious and the combination of the three parts of the film sometimes feel unnatural and forced together.

The film is a true international effort, and it was made in Tunisia, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Turkey, and Cyprus, and it is in Arabic, English, and French with English subtitles.

This was the first film to ever to be nominated for a best international feature at the Oscars representing Tunisia, but it lost to
Another Round, which I earlier reviewed and believe is the better film of the two. Also, the The Man Who Sold his Skin is the first film that was ever nominated in this category that was directed by a Muslim woman (Kaouter Ben Hania). Her previous film, Beauty and the Dogs which I put on my best films of 2019 list was just as gorgeous and had a better story, but this film also has merit and is worth a look. The Man Who Sold His Skin won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and opened to accolades in Europe in 2020, but it only crossed the sea to open in America on April 2, 2021.

The film begins with two star crossed lovers, Sam and Abeer in Tunisia who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Her family wants her to enter into practical, arranged marriage with a well-off older man. Isn’t that always the case? But she only has eyes for Sam, her same age lover whose passion only partially makes up for his lack of money.

Sam spontaneously declares his love for Abeer, on a train (in a marvelous life affirming scene which includes dancing) in front of a crowd, and he proposes to his adoring girlfriend, but she seems hesitant.

But in the heat of passion, he also spouts off some revolutionary rhetoric which gets him in trouble with local authorities (The Syrian War is going on at the time). It is his bad luck that someone records the exchange and gives it to the authorities.

The police question him, in a last-ditch effort the Abeer asks the older man (he has a government job) she is supposed to marry to help Sam (she tells him Sam is just a school friend). Sam seems hurt and feels belittled by the request, and he refuses the help, but it is obvious she is suffering when tears well up in her eyes.

Although he is heartbroken, Sam has to quickly flee Tunisia to evade to authorities and so he relocates to Lebanon. He crashes a high-class art show in Beirut and meets a haughty art manager (played by the still stunning Italian actress, Monica Bellucci of Malena, The Passion of the Christ, and The Matrix sequels) who figures out that he is a freeloader who is there for free food. She seems intrigued by him at the same time she looks down at him. She wears a ridiculous blonde wig, and her character seems to be sending up the artificiality and shallowness of many in the art world.

Through her, Sam meets an artist who senses that he is desperate and offers him an interesting proposition or devil’s bargain (the artist even jokingly calls himself Mephistopheles like the demon who takes the title character’s soul in return for knowledge in Faust). The luciferian figure is dripping with class condensation and even suggests that Sam’s lower class angry energy suits him.

The artist offers to buy Sam’s back though not his soul, and he wants to cover Sam’s back with intricately layered tattoos. The rationale for the art piece (which is actually kind of cruel) is that the piece critiques society’s treatment of human beings as mere commodities which shows the artists’ extreme lack of self-awareness and hypocrisy.

Since Sam has become in effect a traveling art piece, he will be able to get around borders without applying for citizenship and he will be able to visit his girlfriend (who has since married) and give up his fear of being deported. All he has to do is attend art exhibitions where he poses for camera shoots and agree to give up his skin after his death for preservation. This suggests of course that in the real-world inanimate objects can have more rights than humans.

The basic premise was based on a real situation. In the 2006, a Swiss man allowed an artist named Wim Delvoye, to cover his back with tattoos for money. The film is based on the novel: "Tim", which was written by the actual artist, and the art pieces in the exhibition in the film were real pieces created by him. The director even asked the artist, Wim, to play himself, but he refused so the part went to the Belgian actor, Koen De Bouw, who does a good enough job.

During a chilling interview, an insurance rep admits that certain ways for Sam to die would be worse than others. He suggests it would be perfectly ok for Sam to die say of cancer because it would not damage his back, but if he died prematurely in an explosion people would lose money and it would be bad for business.

On the other hand, the Civil rights groups want to use Sam as a mere symbol of the exploitation of Syrian immigrants, and they don’t care that in many ways his life has improved. No one in the whole movie actually seems to see him as a person with any intrinsic value. The commentary on how groups reduce people to social causes reminded me of the German film, Knife in the Head which made the same point better.

In the film’s most humiliating scene, people at an auction bid on ownership to his rights to Sam’s back skin after his death. He tries to reclaim ownership of his body and his humanity in a shocking and extreme manner.

The film has some attractive shot compositions from director, Kaouther Ben Hania, and it has appropriately painterly cinematography by Christopher Aoun. Many of the shots in galleries showing the well framed art pieces are visually arresting. This might be the best looking film I have seen since Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Unfortunately, The Man Who Sold His Skin is often more compelling to think about and discuss than it is to actually watch. The film seems to make its main points early in the first half then keeps repeating them ad infinitum. So, although the flawed film gets a mild recommendation, it is not consistently strong as most of the other films that were nominated in this year’s Oscar race.

Directed by:     Kaouther Ben Hania
Written by:    Screenplay by Kaouther Ben Hania, based on the
 book Tim by Wim Delvoye
Starring:    Yalva Liane, Koen De Bouw, Dea Liane
Released:    9/4/2020 (In Venice), 4/2/2021 (in the USA)
Length:    104 minutes
Rating:    Not Rated
Available on:    Gene Siskel Center web site as well as Hulu, Vudo,
 Amazon Prime and Google Play

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN © 2021 Cinétéléfilms
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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