Tunisia’s first Oscar-nominated film, The Man Who Sold His Skin, is an emulsion of ideas, each as ambitiously thought-provoking as the next. Director Kaouther Ben Hania’s passionate film centers on Sam Ali (Mahayni), a man whose deep love for a woman, Abeer (Liane), forces him into refugeedom. Desperate to connect with her again in her new home of Belgium, Ali make a Faustian deal with artist Jeffrey Godefroi (De Bouw) that allots him the freedom to travel Europe, with the cost being his body.
It sounds audacious, but Ben Hania’s script is based off reality: artist Wim Delvoye’s 2006 work, Tim (Delvoye used tattoo parlor manager Tim Steiner's back as his literal canvas: Steiner is now "displayed" in museums, and on death his tattooed skin will be removed, preserved, and enter a private collection). With that inspiration, Ben Hania adds layers of politics, romance, drama, and sometimes dark comedy. The Man Who Sold His Skin is fantastical, and underneath the pronounced commentary on refugee and human rights, its heart belongs with Ali and Abeer’s own Romeo and Juliet story. When they are together, the camera lens is fuzzy and warped, as if it’s weeping for their star-crossed love. Ali fancies himself a knight in shining armor, destined to save his princess Abeer who has been forced into an arranged marriage with a nasty ambassador. Yet Abeer’s desires are often muddled in favor of the film’s need for a wrench, which presents her as a messy, flat character.
Ben Hania appears to be the gem of Tunisia. Her previous film, Beauty and the Dogs, was the country’s submission for the 91st Academy Awards, and she’s the only filmmaker to have her films submitted twice by the government. It’s not hard to see why: Hania has a vibrant eye, and her films swim in dazzling colors, prints, and performers. Cinematographer Christopher Aoun’s hazy lighting decorates The Man Who Sold His Skin, offering a halo effect to the soft, edgy art gallery lighting, and the neons bleed like the ink from the tattoo Godefroi paints across Ali’s back.
The exploration of exploitation versus body autonomy is a fascinating web Ben Hania weaves. Although some museum goers ogle the visa that’s tattooed on Ali’s back, others loudly critique it online, calling Ali a disgrace to Syria and refugees alike. They cry for him as both a victim and villain: but Ali is neither, for he made his choice. Yet that doesn’t mean there’s no room for regret and disdain, which The Man Who Sold His Skin skillfully explores.
Ben Hania’s film is littered with chicken imagery, from the factory Ali works at before he sells his back, to paintings of chicken feasts he studies before his exhibition. The chicken symbolism is meant to contrast her equally heavy use of peacock imagery: two different birds, one mass farmed and slaughtered, the other representing luxury and regality. Although Ali is for a moment cursed for selling the skin off his own back for love, he eventually finds freedom, and as The Man Who Sold His Skin trickles towards the end, it’s clear that in this case risk was worth the reward.
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