“Sometimes I think I”m Mephistopheles,” guyliner-wearing conceputal artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) tells Sam (Yahya Mahayni) near the beginning of The Man Who Sold His Skin. Sam is the Syrian refugee Godefroi is about to sign up to be a living art work, and Godefroi’s declaration is as clear a reference as you need that this is an update on the Faust legend, albeit with a clever retooling for a more secular age – men no longer sell their souls, it’s their ass or, more decorously, their skin that’s in this game. The Arabic original title – translated as The Man Who Sold His Back – gets things a touch closer to that ass-selling.
Writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania’s film starts out in Syria, where Sam was happily courting the love of his life, Abeer (Dea Liane), when he fell foul of Bashar al-Assad’s thugs and had to flee the country. He winds up in Beirut as a starving refugee and is made an offer he can’t refuse by Godefroi – I tattoo your back, you become a living artwork, and when I “sell” you to some wealthy collector, you’ll get a percentage of the take. Along the way, because Sam is now a valuable piece of merchandise rather than a worthless human being, he gets to travel the world, instantly gaining access to the Schengen Zone (the 25 European countries that have abolished borders for internal travel) that is the dream destination for millions of displaced Syrians like Sam. The fact that the tattoo on Sam’s back is of a Schengen visa is, of course, all part of the high-concept joke.
It sounds fanciful and yet the plot is drawn from real life. In 2006 a man called Tim Steiner agreed to let the Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye tattoo his back (Delvoye had previously been tattooing live pigs). The resulting finished artwork, titled TIM, sold for €150,000 to an art collector, who will get Tim’s skin when he dies. Look out for a cameo by Delvoye as an insurance agent.
Sam’s life post-tattoo isn’t a straightforward one. At one level he’s being exploited, clearly, but he’s also now part of a select world of entitlement. He’s caught in a web of competing powerplays. Sam is a brown man in a largely white world, a poor man in a rich one, a refugee trying to court the lost love who’s now gone and married someone else.
If Faust is the most obvious reference point in terms of plot, Lindsay Anderson’s satire O Lucky Man! is closer as regards tone. That’s the one where young, innocent Malcolm McDowell has the naivety kicked out of him by a series of encounters with a “real world” beyond his wildest imaginings. This is a similarly supremely jaundiced view of the world of art, a realm full of people preoccupied with calculations about their own self worth and whose connection to the nuts and bolts of everyday life is not even a distant memory.
It beats O Lucky Man! by avoiding Anderson’s tendency to heavy-handedness and by paying careful attention to segments of the audience who might not be overly surprised to discover that the art world is full of assholes – or might not care either way. To this end, the casting of Monica Bellucci – entitlement a specialty – as one of Godefroi’s flunkies is a great idea, and so is Christian Vadim (son of Roger Vadim and Catherine Deneuve) as Godefroi’s lawyer, the pair of them saying it all without having to say anything at all, but also delivering the sort of reassurance that white, subtitle-averse audiences (and distributors) might need.
Ben Hania also takes care not to neglect the will he/won’t he aspect of Sam’s pursuit of Abeer, even after she’s married. A spoonful of love-story sugar really helps the medicinal satire go down. As does Christopher Aoun’s cinematography, clean and crisp with just enough attention to colour to suggest that he might be a fan of Benoît Debie. And Amin Bouhafa’s chilled synths-and-strings soundtrack beautifully fills the spaces when some Baroque cantata by Vivaldi or his 17th-century ilk (reassurance again) isn’t on the soundtrack.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is the first time a film from Tunisia has been nominated for an Academy Award and at least some of the credit for that has to go to Yahya Mahayni, who plays Sam as a mix of the smart and the naive, the gullible and the desperate, the biddable and the resistant. He’s a good actor but more importantly a likeable one and a good reason why this dense movie bounces along at a beguiling speed.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022