The Man Who Sold His Skin, the 2020 Tunisian film that competed in this year’s Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, is about a love affair subverted by world politics and redeemed with a Faustian bargain. In Syria, circa 2011, when security forces were using strong-arm tactics to squelch pro-democracy uprisings, a young man named Sam is traveling by train with his girlfriend, Abeer. In a moment of love-induced euphoria, Sam shouts out words that could be interpreted as a call for revolution. His outburst does not go unnoticed, resulting in quick incarceration by the oppressive Syrian regime. With the help of relatives, Sam manages an escape. But to flee prosecution he’s forced to leave behind his country and Abeer, the woman he hoped to marry.
After crossing the border into Lebanon, Sam’s financial situation is so precarious he begins to crash private art shows to raid their buffets. He also discovers that Abeer’s family pressured her into marrying a well-connected man whom she doesn’t love, and they’re both now working at the Syrian embassy in Belgium. During one of Sam’s food-smuggling forays, he’s outed as a refugee by the assistant of Jeffrey Godefroi, an artist known publicly as “the most provocative” artist alive. Jeffrey approaches Sam, draws him out, and when he hears about his plight, he offers help – for a price. Jeffrey wants to tattoo his next masterpiece on Sam’s back and display him in museums as a piece of living art. In return, Sam would receive room and board in five star hotels and, more importantly, gain a visa and the freedom to travel wherever he wants, perhaps even to Belgium to rescue Abeer from the clutches of his romantic rival. What could go wrong?
The Man Who Sold His Skin is writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, but it has the polish and strong visual vocabulary of a more experienced filmmaker. To underline Sam’s objectification, Ben Hania frequently frames him within mirrors and windows, or positioned next to statues, as if he’s just another piece of art. At other times, her camerawork accentuates Sam’s alienation by making him appear small and powerless. However, Ben Hania is inconsistent in trusting her audience, as when she spoon-feeds her Faustian subtext; despite Jeffrey’s dark eyeliner, black fingernail polish, and devilish demeanor – not to mention the film’s title is just one word away from “The Man Who Sold His Soul” – her script makes sure we get the message. In one scene, a newscaster declares Jeffrey’s artwork as “sulfurous.” In another, Jeffrey himself admits he sometimes thinks he’s Mephistopheles. But occasional heavy-handedness hardly detracts from the overall story or the haunting central performance given by Yahya Mahayni as Sam, who seems to be channeling Buster Keaton with his stoic expressions and sad, expressive eyes.
Swirling around The Man Who Sold His Skin are the perennial questions regarding the meaning and purpose of art, as well as its uneasy relationship to commerce. It’s not the responsibility of the filmmaker to provide answers, but Ben Hania is clear about one thing, and unlike her handling of symbolic references, it’s subtly expressed through the sum total of ideas, conflicts and resolutions that inexorably lead to the film’s conclusion: art, wealth, political ideals – all pale in comparison to freedom.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski