Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Screenplay: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cinematography: Christopher Aoun; Editing: Marie-Hèlène Dozo; Art Department: Julien Defasque; Score: Amine Bouhafa
Stars: Yahya Mahayni (Sam Ali), Dea Liane (Abeer), Koen De Bouw (Jeffrey Godefroi), Monica Bellucci (Soraya Waldy), Saad Lostan (Ziad), Darina Al Joundi (Sam’s Mother), Christian Vadim (William, Sam’s Attorney), Jan Dahdoh (Hazem), Marc de Panda (Marc Sheen), Najoua Zouhair (Sam’s Sister), Wim Delvoye (Insurance Broker)
On its shiny, reflective surface, director-writer Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin is a pitch-black modernization of Faust. Only reset, fittingly, in the soulless, archly pretentious world of high art, which is almost as insufferable as the elitist world of haute couture, where Meryl Streep was Satan. And yet it’s about so much more. A witty, savagely dark satire on the intersection between the Syrian refugee crisis and modern, consumerist society, that places greater value on irreplaceable inanimate objects than easily expendable human beings, it’s a pan-international, French-Tunisian co-production in Arabic, English and French, that became Tunisia’s entry in the 2020 Best International Film Oscar race (where it lost to Denmark’s Another Round). A deceptively simple story, it initially seems ripped from the headlines.A Syrian War refugee, Sam Ali (played by Yahya Mahayni) is wanted by his government after he’s turned in for irreverently shouting ‘revolution,’ during a train ride with his fiancé, Abeer (played by Dea Liane). Fleeing to Lebanon one step ahead of the authorities, Ali finds he can only secure a visa to join Abeer in Paris by ‘selling’ his back to a world-famous experimental artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (played by Koen De Bouw), who wants to permanently tattoo the image of a Schengen visa upon it, utilizing Ali as a traveling installation piece. Full disclosure, I was initially quite wary of watching The Man Who Sold His Skin, due to the seemingly unsavory subject matter. The title had the ominous sound of some skin crawling creepypasta inspired by the ‘decorative’ uses human skin has been put to in the past by the likes of Ed Gein and his legion of cinematic descendants, such as Leatherface and Buffalo Bill. Certainly the opening image, of a human skin hung like peeled parchment in a display frame, confirmed that there would be some unseemly tannery to come.
Once I conquered my trepidation and sat down to watch it however, I was surprised at how expertly filmmaker Ben Hania, who studied cinema in Tunisia and in Paris at the Femis and la Sorbonne, balanced that razor’s edge intersection that her just-this-side of exploitative subject matter treads, between high art and low. And how genially she toyed, as the director, with her own script’s concept, saying so much about the commercialized world of consumerism we live in, without demanding we take the importance of what she were saying as dead seriously as I feared she might. Inspired by Belgium provocateur Wim Delvoye’s living artwork Tim (2006), The Man Who Sold His Skin is every bit as pretentious, insane and downright hilarious at times, as the premise demands.
As the film’s fount of inspiration, some background on Delvoye, who makes an appearance in the film as the Insurer, is relevant. He started tattooing pig skins, taken from slaughterhouses in the U.S., in 1992, before he began tattooing live pigs in 1997 as part of his Art Farm project, believing as they grew, they would likewise appreciate, literally “growing in value,” as the price of ham tends to do as it acquires more meat to the bone. His art intended to draw a clear line to other goods traded and sold on the open exchange, or designated with a property value by society, such as houses and cars, which increase in value or depreciate over time, depending on reappraisal. More subject specific, this notion of ascribing monetary worth to the living, dovetails with the phenomenon of how the work of certain artists tends to increase in value once their creator passes away.
This idea of tattooing pigskin, like stapling a price tag to a sow’s ear, seems less novel to the artist than a throwback to the origins of the written word itself. The earliest parchments used by the first cultures to leave a written record of themselves, in the dim, dusty Mesopotamian past, around the general geographic area of lands like Syria, were derived from the skins of calf, sheep or goat. So Delvoye’s advancing on to applying his inking pen to human flesh just seems to have evolved as a natural progression. An ancient artform practiced by tribes both primitive and modern, tattooing is treated here in the same way as writing or painting, just another means of expressing oneself, like applying pen to paper.
Approaching the body as a blank canvas to be filled in by marks and symbols, tattooing, once considered fit only for rowdy bikers, sailors and sideshows, remains contested as a legitimate artform, despite its increasing mainstream popularity. So, by incorporating it into the story the way The Man Who Sold His Skin does, the movie wants to dispel the hidebound notions of self-appointed gatekeepers, concerning what is considered acceptable in terms of art. As well as question the tradition of historically assigning a hierarchical value to different means and modes of creative expression.
It could be argued that Delvoye’s moving from printing on pig skin to printing on people, like his other acclaimed conceptual pieces, which correlate the human body and its biological functions to the automated processes of any other mass-manufactured machine, consciously intended to dehumanize his subjects. By drawing such correlations between man and beast, he serves to rob people of their individualized humanity. Delvoye’s work appears to devolve and devalue human beings, reducing us to an animalized or mechanized state, commodities to be processed and sold on the open market, like any other industrialized device. Or work of art. Which is certainly the stance the movie adopts.Despite having to do with the modern art scene, The Man Who Sold His Skin actually takes one back, since the concept is not new. We’re reminded that equally ‘superior’ European societies in the past actually did preserve the skin of notorious criminals, as bookmarks or bindings. Even the fingers of indigenous natives were kept as keepsakes. Such as Eskimos, who paddled their way into international waters, were captured and brought to the continent to be put on display as curiosities. Much as living art piece Ali, a stranger in a strange land himself, is put on display in a ‘human zoo.’ A Syrian refugee passing through foreign countries, he’s treated little better by the wealthy art patrons who, more and more, come to view him less as a man than as an animal in a wildlife refuge, to be gawked at and made a monkey of.Treated as a creature as opposed to a person, he’s put on exhibit as if his tattoo made him a freak worthy of display in some seedy carny sideshow. Rather than the high-priced, classy work of art he initially considers himself to be. He’s ogled by visitors, who snap pics without his permission, and whisper about him behind his back, in a way intended to body shame him. Making him paranoid and self-conscious about baring his wares publicly. So, despite Ali’s price tag, he seems no better off than Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, whose physical deformities were likewise exhibited publicly, in back alleys for a cheap profit and quick turnover.As Sam Ali, Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni is little short of brilliant in this movie (he won best actor in the Horizons Section at the Venice Film Festival). While his official filmography (at least the one available on IMDb) is surprisingly scant, his career dates all the way back to 2015. And in an online interview with eniGma magazine (https://www.enigma-mag.com/yahya-mahayni/), he reveals he’s appeared in many additional underground films for friends and independent features and shorts, that were never officially released or widely distributed. Which helps explain the aged-in maturity of his stunning performance in The Man Who Sold His Skin. With his curly black mane and dolorous, bullfrog eyes, he appropriately begins to look as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, rather than just a tattoo on his back, A penniless refugee in an overpopulated, war-torn world, and considered human refuse by his host country, the artist’s imprint on his back, a short stay, 90-day visa that allows bearers to travel to any Schengen member country, including most of those in the EU, for business or tourism, serves as a Midas touch, giving him the keys to the kingdom. Conferring the unimpeded ability to travel freely about, like those vital letters of transit in Casablanca, it’s a passport he can literally wear with pride, opening as it does every door to him.Initially, Ali cuts a screamingly funny figure, as he struts about the exclusive galleries where he’s put on display, like a prancing show pony. A living, breathing statue come to life, Pygmalion maybe, he resembles a preening peacock, with his blue silk bathrobe fanning behind him. Vaingloriously sailing through the marbled spaces, he considers himself in the same class as the priceless paintings decorating the walls around him. For a time, Ali foolishly comes to believe in his own inflated value. He gets a snickering sense of satisfaction out of a complicated light display, arranged to draw the art patrons’ gaze directly to his expensive backside.In these moments, the movie is commenting on our celebrity culture, in which entertainers put themselves on public display in a similar fashion. Ali believes his growing fame in artistic circles makes him a star, even referring to the uptick in museum visitors as his personal ‘fans.’ He’s like those celebrities who, despite possessing no discernible talent, are feted simply for being famous, rather than for anything worthwhile they’ve actually accomplished. But at least Ali comes to adopt his delusions of grandeur more honestly. Of incalculable value, he’s handled with kid gloves, as if he were more precious than gold.Stamped far too fragile to be callously bruised by course, human hands, his back is carefully brushed, trimmed, buffed and varnished to a waxy, archival finish. Gallery attendants gingerly walk on eggshells, for fear of smudging him with oily fingerprints, or dropping him and cracking his frame. He enjoys driving his starchy handlers and the museum guards into nervous fits, every time he potentially puts himself in harm’s way. Not sure how to disassemble, box and ship him, he moves about, and speaks extemporaneously, in a way no installation piece they’ve ever worked with before had the audacity to. Much as movie stars used to insure their legs for a million dollars, they’re afraid Ali might get a scratch or dent, breaking something on himself that could cost the company incalculable fees and damages. As when a pimple pops up to mar his back, the blemish instantly depreciating his value, sending bidders into paroxysms of anxiety. Surrounded by works of art built of marble and stone to withstand centuries, his shelf life seems drastically reduced by comparison, his expiration date looming. When asked if the museum’s insurance covers him if he gets cancer, the nickel and diming health care system is seen to put as much of a price tag on people’s lives and wellbeing, as the mercenary art world itself.He’s forbade to interact with the guests who come to ogle him. Only visiting tours of school kids on field trip, brought to the gallery to enhance their cultural appreciation, and too young to know they shouldn’t touch the exhibits, engage him humanely. Allowing Ali to seize this teachable moment, and serve as tour guide, educating them about himself. At all times, he’s expected to remain as frozen as an artist’s model during a sketching session, as mute and motionless as the queen’s guard while on duty. Rather than sharing his opinions, or protesting his inhumane treatment. Such stiff upper lipped stoicism is alien to the Middle Eastern character, and becomes unbearable when Abeer’s new husband, Ziad (played by Saad Lostan), visits the exhibit just to needle him into a reaction, as tourists are invariably compelled to do, with the British sentries.When fists start flying, it’s the formerly well-connected, rather than the refugee, who finds himself brought up on charges, accused of damaging the museum’s priceless property. While this petty Syrian diplomat didn’t have the clout, back home, to help his wife’s old love in his hour of need, Ali, despite feeling as impotent and inert as a wall fixture at times, finds his new position actually allows him to wield greater influence than he ever has in his life. Pulling strings, he magnanimously gets Ziad released on all charges.As Ali settles into his new life, he’s eventually placed in a nook on the landing of a grand staircase, like an knickknack. His back illuminated by a becoming spotlight, he’s a party favor for the guests below to swirl about and comment upon, while enjoying their bubbly. Ali’s simply an attractive item sitting about; decorous eye candy to be seen and not heard. A golden trophy shown off as living tribute to his creator’s artistic vision, Ali’s own life remains in a state of suspended stasis. And one can sense the unique perceptions of the female director, behind the film’s unusual viewpoint.Placing her male character in an objectified position like this, more frequently associated with female’s lived experiences, allows the film to question traditional notions of Middle Eastern manhood and masculinity. The movie also betrays a definite, if unseemly sense of sadism in the systemic way the Ali character becomes progressively degraded and exploited by society. Such as when Zaid brings Abeer to the gallery, hoping to humiliate him, by revealing to his former fiancé what he’s been reduced too. It ventures beyond all reason, slipping into farcical realms that may put one in mind of what Lina Wertmüeller put Giancarlo Giannini through in Seven Beauties, or Lars von Trier’s degradation of his heroines, in movies like Breaking the Waves and Dogville. The way this man permits himself to be put on exhibitionistic display, is regarded as beneath contempt by other Syrians. To the point where his situation is compared to that of glorified prostitution, given his relationships, which are entirely transactional. By allowing his back to be tattooed, Ali’s believed to have sold his body, along with his virtue. So, it’s understandable that his flat mate, Hazem (played by Jan Dahdouh), finds it hard to believe that the decadent Western artist is not propositioning him for more nefarious purposes.
Even Ali’s weeping, worried mother (played by Darina Al Joundi) is convinced that her son must have been pricked by something more substantial than a tattoo needle, given the free and easy new lifestyle that’s fallen in his lap. The act of tattooing the skin has been sexualized on screen as a metaphor for symbolic intercourse at least as far back as Tattoo (1980). So as Ali lounges in unearned luxury, beneath the velvet coverlet of his king-size bed, or is captured in close proximity to the chiseled casts of Greco-Roman statues, even viewers are supposed to correlate his condition to that of a kept man.When he’s sold to a wealthy art collector in Switzerland, we’re told that it’s due to that country’s ‘more enlightened’ lack of laws concerning human trafficking. While his chief handler, Soraya (played by Monica Bellucci, the movie’s one international name, though largely wasted), is described as an excellent pimp for scoring him such prime bookings. As Ali slips further and further in this manner, willingly allowing himself to be used, he slowly loses all self-respect. His head bowed low, in disgrace, before the crowds, his once proud flesh is openly prodded, poked and pawed, no longer feeling like his own.He’s considered a disgrace by his fellow Syrian refugees, for allowing himself to be exploited in such a whorish way. Where they believe themselves morally superior, for having managed to retain their own dignity and self-respect, in the face of similarly trying circumstances. Believed to be making an international laughingstock of them all, his highly prized tattoo becomes a Scarlet Letter to the activists and protesters who berate him. Like that society lady in Cecil B. Demille’s silent movie The Cheat, he’s been branded with a purchase sticker for life, marking him as damaged goods.Cash signs dancing before Godefroi’s eyes, every time he looks at him, Ali’s body is traded on the stock exchange, like any other valuable commodity, spiking outrageously on the Dow Jones industrial average. The iconic image he carries on him plastered up on billboards in living color, he’s commoditized and commercialized in every conceivable way, to make a quick killing. Even mass produced in cheap art poster reproductions, for patrons who want to own him for half off. While tee-shirts embossed with his tattoo on the back are sold at the gift store, for departing visitors to take away with them.Far more intriguing than the romance of Ali and Abeer, is the bizarre, exploitative, strangely symbiotic relationship between Ali and Godefroi, the artist whose ‘reconstructive’ tattooing of him allows Ali to escape his former life. It deserved deeper exploration than Ben Hania’s script gives it. Especially since Godefroi tends to disappear for large chunks of the film so that we’re never able to get a full read on him, to understand what’s going on in his head. Which severely hamstrings the contrived ending. Oddly, if anything, their strange relationship puts me in mind of early 19th century American Army physician William Beaumont, who studied the processes of gastric digestion, through the unhealed stomach wound of Canadian fur trapper Alexis Bidagan dit St-Martin.Tricking the poor, illiterate young man into signing away his rights, Beaumont made him his indentured servant, to keep him close enough to be conveniently experimented on at his leisure. Over time, the good doctor began to view his human guinea pig less as a man, than a gaping hole to be probed, in the interest of advancing scientific understanding. Eventually St-Martin ran away, refusing to return, his family delaying burying his body until it’d begun to decompose, so other unethical medical men couldn’t disinter him for further study. The exploitative, co-dependent relationship between artist and model in The Man Who Sold His Skin has similar overtones. Given his importance as the artist’s most celebrated and famous work, Ali, on the other hand, uses the unique position he’s been placed in as leverage, to call for better working conditions and an end to his exploitation, causing Godefroi to come to regret the monster he’s created, and who he believes has forgotten his proper place. He wishes Ali would just stop making unrealistic demands, willing him to revert into a mute piece of inanimate stone, like the men who stared at Medusa, petrifying into forniphilia. He’d be much less problematic. When Ali brings a list of complaints to Godefroi’s attention, like a striking worker wanting to renegotiate terms with management, he’s told by the artist that he’s not his ‘father,’ despite having ‘created’ him in an artistic sense, after arduous labor. But Godefroi eschews all responsibility for his creation beyond that point, carelessly brushing him off with the pronouncement that he can’t solve his problems for him, despite them all being the results of his interfering with his body. Suddenly the tale of this man who feels he’s wearing someone else’s skin, suggests Frankenstein, in which the doctor similarly washed his hands of the ‘offspring’ he saw as a failed experiment, an abomination due to his ‘imperfect’ appearance. Rather than guided and taught to negotiate the pitfalls of the unfamiliar world he finds himself navigating, with the parental supervision all creatures need when newly stepping into life, Ali’s abandoned and thrown on his own devices, the concerns he articulates ignored. So, when he can no longer be placated and starts acting out, he seems a rampaging monster to those around him. Having never seen him as an animate human, with independent thoughts, feelings, fears, needs of his own, when he breaks that fourth wall between the viewer and the viewed, hopping off stage and into the crowd of onlookers, he morphs in their eyes into the stereotypical image of the fanatical Muslim extremist. Suddenly he’s a brown-skinned, suicide bomber, posing a perceived threat to their decadent way of life.Ali’s original acceptance of devilish art dealer Godefroi’s proposition, results in him literally agreeing to give him the skin off his back. Yet, their unholy contract results in him deteriorating in slow stages, as if his soul had been thrown in as part of the bargain. Like The Portrait of Dorian Grey in reverse, Ali, once a shallow narcissist, insistent on looking his very best, becomes more and more physically disheveled and dissolute over the course of proceedings. Haunted by the image etched into his back, the cost of what he’s become begins to sink in. Like those trickster djinns in Middle Eastern mythology, or, more specific to the movie’s premise, Balzac’s The Wild-Ass’s Skin, about a shagreen which was also etched upon and granted its owner’s deepest desires, Ali’s wishes invariably backfire. Making his life a living hell, from which there seems no escape. His tattoo becomes the mark of Cain, trapping him in the very sort of prison he was trying to escape, by fleeing Syria in the first place. Freely flitting from country to country, no walls built high enough to keep him out, as they do the other migrants fleeing Syria, Ali was initially seduced by the gilded, jetsetter lifestyle that came with being an internationally renowned art piece. But, as all Fausts eventually come to find, gaining the whole world has profited him nothing since, in exchange, he’s forfeited his immortal soul . This film, which is very much about shiny surface appearances, as in the looking glasses Ali frequently passes by, and Christopher Aoun’s exquisite cinematography concentrates on, evokes The Student of Prague. Filmed twice, as a classic, German silent, inspired by Poe’s short story William Wilson, in The Student of Prague, Mephistopheles likewise possessed the protagonist’s mirror image, in order to claim his soul.
By movie’s end, Ali’s been deprived of all humanity. He’s become a literal slave, put on full display at an auction house, where he’s sold to the highest bidder. His situation recalls that of the young Senegalese immigrant, in Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), brought back from Africa like a souvenir, by French tourists, who keep her virtually enslaved in their home, as a domestic servant. While both films are set in the modern day, the same historical forces of imperialism, capitalism and racism, which have systemically driven western countries to exploit the economic resources and labor pools of indigenous lands, in order to increase their own profit margins, remain as pernicious, if more invisible and insidious. To the wealthy, powerful art dealers who exploit his body for revenue, Ali becomes a beast of burden, carrying his own quoted price on his back like a yoke, same as those polka dot painted pigs he passes in the gallery.
While stranded in Lebanon, Ali worked a low-paying job at a meat processing plant, where each interchangeable chick was tagged for the future, so profit could be harvested from the number of eggs they laid. When Ali subsequently meets Soraya and Godefroi, at a gallery opening, where he’s come to chow down on the free buffet (the very image of the ‘starving artist’), the exhibit they stand before appears comprised of eviscerated chicken parts. It looks like something out of the more disturbing work of Russian artist Chaïm Soutine. The animal parts on display here, foreshadow the inhumane ‘human zoo’ Ali will soon be trafficked in, a grotesquerie, like that ‘Human Duck’ at the end of Tod Browning’s Freaks. For foreign film connoisseurs, there’s much richness to be taken away from The Man Who Sold His Skin. Worthy of the highest praise, given director Ben Hania’s dappled pictorial eye, this film, rather than Ali himself, deserves to be classed right alongside the other works of art that inspired it, and decorate the backgrounds. Indeed, if it weren’t for the confounded resolution and inexplicable shifts in character motivation near the end, I think The Man Who Sold His Skin could legitimately qualify as candidate for one of the best movies of this century, so far.Had the director dared go all the way with her material, sticking to the true story, in which Tim Steiner, the man whose tattoo inspired the movie, has legally agreed, upon death, to be skinned and his back art stretched, preserved and framed, in the art collection of Rik Reinking, the man who purchased his tattoo, back in 2008, Ben Hania would have provided viewers a more properly unsettling send off. While still staying true to the themes her movie raises. In our increasingly insane world, the truth is indeed stranger than fiction.