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
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
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
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
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
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
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.