A fascinating true story mixing art and human rights has inspired a regrettably ham-fisted movie in “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s lush but wildly uneven yarn (and Oscar nominee for international feature) about the thorny convergence of art world privilege and real-world woes.
In the late 2000s, a Swiss man agreed to let Belgian artist Wim Delvoye turn his back into a tattooed work (titled after him, “Tim”), a contract that involved traveling for scheduled gallery appearances and a percentage when it sold (and it did). Ben Hania’s topical reworking of this eccentric and questionable bargain is to make the living canvas someone truly in need — and who is more desperate these days for the stamp of freedom, and maybe a certain notable prestige, than a refugee?
We meet Syrian man Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) in Arab Spring 2011 when, in an act of impulsive romance, he proposes to his blushing, well-to-do girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane), on a train with a giddy speech to passengers that mentions freedom and revolution. When this outburst gets him arrested and threatened with prison time, he escapes and high-tails it to Lebanon. Being cash-poor, Sam haunts Beirut art gallery openings for the free food while bemoaning not being able to get to Brussels, where Abeer has moved (and moved on) with her new husband, a stuffy Syrian diplomat named Ziad (Saad Lostan).
At one of the galleries he crashes, where he’s exposed by a coolly condescending art dealer named Soraya (Monica Bellucci, bizarrely letting a wig wear her), Sam’s plight grabs the attention of controversial Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen de Bouw). A pontificating provocateur, he offers to give the Syrian the visa he so badly wants — but in ink on his back as an artwork owned by Jeffrey, to be displayed at his bidding, wherever he wants. (In a pointed bit of cultural patronization, Jeffrey sells the idea to this powerless Middle Eastern man as his long-awaited “flying carpet.”) With screenplay speed, Sam agrees, and his tattooed visa is haughtily presented to the public by Jeffrey as a groundbreaking piece that damns the commodification of humans in an unjust world.
Sam becomes both an unlikely art star and a human rights flashpoint, but what does this do to the man himself? That’s the naggingly unformed center of Ben Hania’s scenario, preventing any of her points about freedom, commerce and creativity from ever landing as satire, fable, tragedy or even issue-driven screed. Mostly, the points are explained to us in awkwardly exclamatory dialogue through over-the-top characters, starting with Jeffrey and Soraya and continuing with other art world stereotypes (the ugly collector, the snooty museum director), rarely in situations that feel alive comically or dramatically.
It doesn’t help that Mahayni’s performance is thin, Sam being a maddeningly all over the place protagonist — he mugs, he mopes, he rebels, he flirts, he pines, all of which might not be so untenable if the movie itself didn’t swing wildly from arch humor to soapy drama. The love story falters as a result, as do the occasional reminders that there’s a terrible war going on back home, which leads to a shockingly blasé use of horrific violence to engineer a twist ending. Then again, a movie committed to either madcap irreverence or serious melodrama might have made that story point work.
That “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is still watchable is because the premise is still inherently thought-provoking, and Ben Hania’s shot composition and cinematographer Christopher Aoun’s images have a confident painterliness. But the relentlessly posed nature of everything — even if intended to comment on a constrictive, manufactured world — doesn’t always allow for scenes that live and breathe. Between the forced artistry and the confused tones, it leaves this well-intentioned tale of transgressive imagination and transactional humanity more temporary in its effect than permanent.
‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’
In Arabic, English, French and Flemish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse, Laemmle Royal; also available, Laemmle Virtual Cinema