Venice 2020 review: The Man Who Sold His Skin (Kaouther Ben Hania)

“You want my soul?”
“I want your back”

Ethical questions abound in The Man Who Sold His Skin, Kaouther Ben Hania’s new film playing the Orizzonti section. A provocative film sure to spark discussions between ardent supporters and detractors, the film’s strengths lie not in its cinematic qualities but in the ideas it raises. That it kicks a few hornets’ nests along the way seems to be the least of its concerns. Add to that a captivating central performance and you have a recipe for a film with ample play on the festival circuit and arthouse appeal in more adventurous markets.

Love can make you do strange things. When Sam (Yahya Mahayni) professes his love for Abeer (Dea Liane) a little too frankly in public, Syrian authorities get on his case and he is forced to flee to Lebanon, losing sight of the love of his life. A year later he finds out she, a translator, has moved to Brussels as the wife of a diplomat, Zaid (Saad Lostan). When Sam meets renowned Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen de Bouw) at an upscale Beirut art exhibition, he is made an outlandish offer. Jeffrey wants to use Sam as a canvas for a provocative art piece and political statement by tattooing a large Schengen visum on his back. In return Sam will get to travel to Brussels to be exhibited as a piece of art, but more importantly to have a chance to be reunited with Abeer. Quickly after Sam starts his new career as a living artwork at a prestigious museum protests rise up against his exploitation. Sam will have none of it though, claiming it was his choice. Inevitably he runs into Abeer, but can their old love be rekindled and can Sam escape his life as a work of art without impunity?

Comparisons to Ruben Östlund’s The Square are easily made because of the satirical look by The Man Who Sold His Skin at the modern art world. Neither film has the sometimes absurd pretentiousness of certain art circles as its main theme though. Where Östlund examines human hypocrisy and prejudice, Ben Hania takes a deeper look at a person’s freedom of self-determination in light of Europe’s treatment of refugees. At times it picks up a sledgehammer to make its point, but it does pose interesting questions. Should Sam not have the freedom to decide what to do with his own body, or should this be regarded as exploitation? “I sell my back, and it’s none of your business,” Sam exclaims, and there’s a good discussion to be had on whether he is right. Would people’s views on this be different if Sam were not a refugee? Would the film itself be different?

At one point Jeffrey succinctly illuminates the main argument of the film, as he explains how for people from certain countries it is very hard to go wherever they want, because in some places they are persona non grata. But by turning Sam into an artwork and thus a commodity suddenly all borders are open, allowing Sam to recover his humanity and freedom. The Man Who Sold His Skin lifts up the lid on the way Europe looks at refugees, and it doesn’t all smell like roses. The film is at times unabashedly cynical (yet comical), like when Sam is sold for 25 million to a tacky nouveau riche art collector (exactly the kind of person you would expect to buy a human being), only to be sold shortly after for much less at what deliberately resembles a slave auction. Tasteless perhaps, but is there any more taste in the way EU countries trade over how many refugees each of them takes from entry points like Italy?

This dehumanization eats away at Sam and he decides to use that other stigma that is often imprinted (pun fully intended) on Syrian refugees: they’re all terrorists. Faking a suicide bomb attack allows him to finally turn his back (pun again fully intended) on a world that does not really want him, so he can return to his home country. “I’m in paradise,” Sam tells Jeffrey after he has staged his death in a fake IS execution video, an obvious reference to Muslim martyrdom. Jeffrey tells him he is a free man, to which Sam replies that he has always been free. Free to make his own choices.

The film’s critique of modern art as a business model is less incisive and, although at times funny, a bit blunt. Similarly, the love triangle between Sam, Abeer, and Zaid doesn’t really work and is a needless hook to give Sam impetus to go to Europe. It does underline that while he did have to flee to Lebanon he is not exactly the kind of refugee that arrives on Europe’s doorstep every day, an important distinction that the film makes but Sam’s critics in the film (and perhaps outside of it) don’t. A third disappointment is Monica Bellucci, easily the biggest name in the cast, whose talents are underused throughout the film as Jeffrey’s handler.

These gripes aside, The Man Who Sold His Skin is catnip for those who like to discuss the ethics of film (or art in general). Kaouther Ben Hania does not present easily digestible answers for the problems she poses, but does ask uncomfortable questions. Tying the story to the Syrian refugee crisis is deliberate as it exposes a duality in the way the cultural elite regards this crisis, a mixture of coddling and dehumanizing. In that sense Ben Hania asks the same question as Ruben Östlund: do you recognize yourself?