A still from The Man Who Sold His Skin.
Credit: Courtesy of Tanit Films

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A great premise can be both a blessing and a curse. Consider The Man Who Sold His Skin, a Tunisian film recently nominated for Best International Feature at the upcoming Oscars. It’s about a Syrian refugee who agrees to rent his body to a prominent European artist, who tattoos creative designs on his back and puts him on display in a museum. It’s a wildly original concept, rippling with political, artistic, and moral complexities, but it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. It’s an idea so good that the film itself can’t live up to it. The best part of the whole experience might be reading the synopsis.

So here it is. The film opens in Syria, with Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) wrongfully arrested on a vague charge relating to his romance with Abeer (Dea Liane), his wealthy former schoolmate. Fleeing his homeland, he ends up in Lebanon, where he meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), an artist known for “creating value out of everyday objects.” In the vulnerable Sam, Godefroi sees his next masterpiece. He provocatively tattoos a travel visa on his back and, with help from his persuasive assistant (Monica Bellucci), brings him to Brussels and creates an exhibit around him in a trendy museum. For hours a day, Sam sits still, while the humiliations inherent in his arrangement start to fester.

Written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hanier, The Man Who Sold His Skin aims for an ambitious blend of art-world satire and immigration drama, but it feels most alive in absurdity. There’s the giddy sequence, for example, in which a mere pimple on Sam’s back develops into a full-blown crisis. A threat to Godefroi’s meticulous vision, the zit compels him to shut down the exhibit and take Sam to a renowned dermatologist for a high-stakes pimple-popping. In the interim, the exhibit features a generic card indicating that the piece is “currently being restored.”

Its ideas are ripe for contemplation, but, despite a strong effort by Mahayni to represent the human side of its absurdity, The Man Who Sold His Skin never arrives at the emotionally satisfying payoff it seeks. It moves too briskly, as if the filmmaker was wary of losing the audience’s interest. The opposite approach was needed, as not nearly enough emphasis is placed on Sam’s complex, evolving feelings towards his situation. At one point, he becomes an unwilling cause célèbre for pro-refugee groups who feel he is being exploited; at first, Sam doesn’t agree, but soon he discovers he can use the controversy to his benefit. It’s a fascinating turn, but the film rushes through it, more inclined to keep up its breakneck pace of its dazzling ideas and impressive style than explore its wonderful complexities. 

A conspicuous style can work in concert with provocative material, but here it feels like a distraction for its underdeveloped ideas. The Man Who Sold His Skin is overflowing with gorgeous imagery, thoughtfully composed by cinematographer Christopher Aoun, that reflect the same kind of precious aesthetic it’s ultimately skewering. There is one motif in particular—of characters shot in a reflective surface, like a mirror or glass door—that is repeated so often that it starts to feel comical. I’m not sure it’s supposed to. Too often, The Man Who Sold His Skin opts for the striking choice over the one that’s best for the story. It’s a thoughtful and ambitious work whose form just doesn’t quite align with its function.

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The Man Who Sold His Skin opens Friday, April 9 in the AFI Silver virtual screening room and at Angelika Film Center in Fairfax.