The Man Who Sold His Skin

Abeer’s (Dea Liane) mother clearly has set her sights for her daughter’s future higher than Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), so when the woman he loves tells him that she loves him, he jubilantly announces ‘It’s a revolution!’ on a public bus.  Unfortunately his exuberant choice of words lands him in a Syrian jail. He escapes to Lebanon where he learns Abeer is now in Brussels, married to her mother’s choice, the loathsome diplomat Ziad (Saad Lostan).  Slipping into a private show at an art gallery, Sam is made by Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci) as a freeloading refugee, but her boss, artist Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw), sees an opportunity that will benefit them both in “The Man Who Sold His Skin.”

Laura's Review: B+

Inspired by the real life case of Tim Steiner, whose tattooed back was ‘sold’ by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (the owner will receive his skin when Steiner passes!), writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania ponders the exploitation of Syrian refugees within an immoral art world.  While Sweden’s “The Square” exposed liberal hypocrisy in the same realm, Ben Hania’s Tunisian nominee for the International Oscar could be accused of the same thing she wishes to condemn, one of the many trippy, circular arguments her film puts forward.

Godefroy, described as ‘a famous artist who makes worthless objects worth millions simply by signing them,’ learns that Ali pines for a woman he is powerless to travel to just as she is powerless to come to him and offers him a ‘flying carpet.’  Asked if he wants Ali’s soul, Jeffrey responds that no, he wants his back!  Because Syrian refugees face so many obstacles attempting to travel, Godefroy will tattoo a Shengan visa, the document that allows free travel within Europe, onto Sam’s back, turning him from a human restricted from travelling to a commodity that can go anywhere!   And Sam will receive 1/3 of the profits – what could go wrong?

Sam quickly learns that having the freedom to travel means little when he is under contract to sit on display in various museums.  He is constantly dehumanized – by photographers only interested in his back, by museums who will not allow him to interact with his ‘fans,’ by the auction houses who give him a lot number and by the grotesque art dealer and his wife who buy him – and yet despite Sam’s rebellion against this, he’s also quick to lash out at those who would ‘help,’ him, declaring his 5 star accommodations the opposite of exploitation and the right to sell his back nobody else’s business.  After initially trying to hide exactly how he’s made his way to Europe to both Abeer and his mother (Darina Al Joundi), Sam is exposed when a vengeful Ziad brings Abeer to see the exhibit and by international media in general.  But Ziad’s temper gets the better of him, causing him to damage an $11million art work, giving Sam the upper hand.  The same cannot be said for his mother, who Sam is horrified to learn has lost her legs during Syrian bombing while he was focused on his own predicament (and a situation which he will exploit himself in taking on the persona of a suicide bomber to give himself an advantage).

Mahayni brings an Everyman appeal to the besotted Sam as he pines for the stunningly gorgeous Abeer (Liane’s eyes are the unusual blue-green of a clear Caribbean Sea).  Yet the actor also shows us how exposure to the moneyed art world changes him as he glides about galleries barefoot, a blue silk robe rippling behind him along with his handler.  De Bouw and Bellucci balance each other, the former’s arrogance tempered by the latter’s somewhat compassionate practicality.  Cinematographer Christopher Aoun ("Capernaum") pulls off some neat visual tricks in a bookending white, mirrored gallery, ‘hiding’ Sam amidst bolts of cloth or ‘imprisoning’ Abeer within Sam’s surroundings.  Ben Hania continually ups the ante, introducing new ethical twists throughout Sam’s journey, so it is a bit of a letdown to witness the lengths she goes to deliver a happy ending, one whose satirical absurdity undermines what has come before while also feeling rushed.  Still, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a provocative and well executed work of cinematic art that should ignite many a conversation.

Robin's Review: B+

Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) is a refugee in war-torn Syria, and he is madly in love with Abeer (Dea Lane). But, he must escape the violence and certain death and smuggles himself into Lebanon. There, he meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a renowned tattoo artist, who makes him a deal he cannot refuse if he wants to be with Abeer in “The Man Who Sold His Skin.”

This fascinating study is a kind of physical variation on the old “man who sold his soul to the devil” story. For Sam, it is not an ethereal decision. It is completely pragmatic as he needs the money to get back to Abeer and offers his back as a human canvas. The deal is made and Sam undergoes the grueling tattoo session that will transform him into a work of art for Godefroi. The requirement, for a sizable payday, is to put his back on contracted display.

The strange tale deals with much bigger issues than star-crossed lovers, though. It is about ownership of your body. Here, because the artwork uses Sam’s skin as an artist’s canvas, the question of that ownership comes in to play as the tattoo becomes a fantastically important (and high-priced) “work of art.”

Is Sam an indentured servant? A slave to the highest bidder? Or, is he a mere objet d’art who has no say over his own skin? It is an intriguing story of art and its possession.

Samuel Goldwyn opened "The Man Who Sold His Skin" theatrically in NYC on 4/2/21.  It expands to Los Angeles and additional cities on 4/9/21 and hits VOD on 4/13/21.