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Review: The Man Who Sold His Skin

April 22, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best International Feature

The title of filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, notably the first film from Tunisia to receive an Oscar nomination, ends up being pretty self-explanatory. It’s literally about a man who sells his skin and has it turned into art, but unfortunately this largely aimless film doesn’t have much to say beyond its admittedly intriguing setup.

The film follows Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian immigrant who is forced to flee to Lebanon. He is trying to save up enough money to reunite with Abeer (Dea Liane), the woman that he left behind in Syria, who has since relocated to Belgium.

Things change when Sam gets a strange proposition from Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a pretentious artist who is known for turning “worthless objects” into art. Jeffrey offers to secure him a visa and enough money to get to Europe, in exchange for letting him use his back as a canvass. Sam reluctantly agrees, and Jeffrey tattoos a Schengen visa on his back, turning himself into a living piece of art that ends up being worth a fortune. As he is forced to sit in galleries with his shirt off, and be placed on auction, Sam captures the attention of human rights activists.

I could have handled the generally uneasy nature of The Man Who Sold His Skin if the film had something more insightful to say, but it’s simply not a very good movie. It introduces some potentially interesting themes about bodily autonomy, the objectification of immigrants, and the commodification of human beings. But it just sort of brushes them aside, mostly in favour of the bland romantic storyline between Sam and Abeer, and it doesn’t offer any real insight into the questions that it raises. I sort of get what it is trying to say, but the film does a pretty poor job of articulating any sort of coherent message.

The film sets itself up as a satire of the modern art world, an admittedly easy target, but it’s not pointed or insightful enough to really work as one. It drags quite a bit and is frequently plodding, plagued by poor pacing that rushes through certain plot points while spending too much time on others. For what it’s worth, the story could have easily been condensed into a short film, or at least a much shorter film than the hundred minutes and change that it runs for.

The story culminates with a series of rushed twists at the end that border on ridiculous, and undercut any staying power that the film might have had. While The Man Who Sold His Skin is built around a theoretically interesting concept, and Mahayni delivers a decent performance in the lead, it’s too drawn out to be fully engaging, and ultimately doesn’t say enough to really make it worth the time.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is now available to rent on selected digital platforms.

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