The Man Who Sold His Skin – Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021 – Film Review

There is an omnipresent unsettling feeling that resides within The Man Who Sold His Skin which offers a commentary of both the art world and its interaction with exploitation. The film‘s message also incorporates the plight of refugees and the political narrative. In opening scenes, the glossy, pristine white walls on which a work of art is placed acts as that veneer to the searing underbelly of objectification in this engrossing tale.

At times reminiscent of The Square, which also explores the connection between immigration and the art industry, The Man Who Sold His Skin depicts a fascinating story of a man transformed into a commodity merely by agreeing to being an artist’s canvas and having an innovative tattoo drawn on his skin. It is a gripping, poignant and thought-provoking journey on which director Kaouther Ben Hania takes its protagonist, Sam, and evokes that fear of a modern-day Faustian pact.

Sam Ali, in an excellent portrayal by Yahya Mahayni, is a Syrian refugee desperate to flee his country and to find a means to be closer to the love of his life, as circumstances forced them apart. His desires led him to consider a seductive offer, to his detriment, in a heart-breaking portrait of a man who becomes invisible due to the art on his skin. The ancillary characters’ emphasis solely on the ‘art’ with no consideration of the man, is a disheartening prospect but a significant part of Ben Hania’s uncompromising vision in the film.

Koende Bouw and Yahya Mahayni in The Man Who Sold His Skin
Koende Bouw and Yahya Mahayni in The Man Who Sold His Skin

However, the film’s blend of themes, coupled with a damning commentary and exposure of the Western world’s hypocrisy alongside its exploitation of the unfortunate, bears striking similarities to the Lithuanian film The Lawyer, which also has a character fleeing from Syria who becomes a sex worker. The level of exploitation towards refugees, in both films, is a subject matter frighteningly becoming commonplace.

In The Man Who Sold His Skin, Sam becomes the ‘property’ of a gallery and private art collectors but he is effectively being sold for ‘services rendered’ despite the glossy wrapper. Sam’s casual utterance of the phrase ‘it’s a revolution, we want freedom’ in Syria had resulted in unwanted attention from the authorities to curtail his freedom juxtaposed with his casual agreement to become artist Jeffrey Godefroi’s subject in a bid for his freedom.

A constant state of dread is built up by Ben Hania as Sam’s freedom is eroded subtly and the excellent score amplifies this. Ben Hania trusts the audience to understand the inhumane and exploitative treatment levelled towards Sam without explicit revelations. Quick edits convey Sam’s emotion and the terror with minimal exposition. Mahayni conveys this desperation and frustration subtly but his expressive features ensure that the pain endured by Sam, through civilised society, invoke a degree of guilt as that emotional resonance is felt.  

Equally, the zoomed in images of Sam’s back re-create that visceral notion as the body is both a source of admiration and of terror. People across the world are terrorised due to the complexion of their skin and in Ben Hania’s film, the value of skin is placed on a pedestal for all to observe. It also questions our part to play as the voyeuristic consumers similarly wishing to view such live installations with David Beckham’s sleeping exhibit, as an example.

Yahya Mahayni as Sam in The Man Who Sold His Skin
Yahya Mahayni as Sam in The Man Who Sold His Skin

The Man Who Sold His Own Skin provides a critical outlook at the world’s perspective of refugees and the human desire not to be ignored within this artistic framework. Artists are hoping that their art will be noticed and lovers hope that their love will be noticed and may therefore be indulging in more attention seeking activity. Sam’s presence symbolises both elements as the pawn in a sophisticated game.

The colours and matching patterns are equally visually stunning and expose the differences in Sam’s world as the film progresses. It is fascinating to observe how Sam is seduced and influenced as he becomes accustomed to the contemporary art scene, although pieces of him and his soul are ebbing away with each act of exploitation. As the level of exploitation horrifically increases, the impact on Sam manifests itself in heart-breaking scenes. Ben Hania is truly in her element with The Man Who Sold His Skin with this riveting human-interest tale that will re-awaken the emotions of its audience until its satisfying conclusion.

Ben Hania has delivered a powerfully compelling feature, which is sometimes uncomfortable viewing, but will cause introspection as to how complicit we may all be within systems that exploit the disadvantaged. The fact that The Man Who Sold His Own Skin is based on real life events, the artwork TIM by Wim Delvoye, is a sobering thought as Ben-Hani forces us to confront these ugly realities, that we may be party to, with such a moving, well acted and unforgettable film that will touch your soul and encourages compassion towards others.

 

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