In the case of this multinational co-production, the usual opening gambit of claiming that the following story is based on true events for once raises arched eyebrows—at least in hindsight. A cursory internet search yields the intelligence that, in fact, a European artist did once tattoo his work on the back of a man and actually “sold” the artwork to a collector in 2008. The transaction in the movie is a bit more politically fraught, and while the story sells itself as a kind of satire, its thematic proximity to current headlines addressing the ever-changing dynamics in the Middle East keeps you constantly on the alert for any untoward humor you might derive from the action.
The main thing being satirized is the art world, but unlike The Square, another tongue-in-cheek study of the limits of creativity that was nominated for a foreign film Oscar, The Man Who Sold His Skin finds room for empathy among its cynical set pieces. In a way it has to, because the artwork is a Syrian refugee named Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), who has fled his homeland and his fiancee after falling afoul of the government. He not-so-innocently falls into the hands, so to speak, of the Belgian artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), who is looking for a “canvas” on which to etch his brilliant conceptual art, a life-size tattoo of the so-called Schengen visa, which allows the holder to travel freely within the European Union, and is thus highly coveted by people trying to escape strife in their native lands.
The director, Kaouther Ben Hania, has perhaps more fun with this premise than a lot of other filmmakers would ever dare to. Though Sam isn’t treated as a servant or an object by Godefroi, he is obligated to sit half-naked in galleries while patrons ogle his back and make any sort of unfortunate comments they want about his situation while not knowing anything about that situation; which is more complicated than they can imagine. Thanks to the visa on his back, he really can go anywhere in Europe he wants, and thanks to Godefroi, he can live fairly high on the hog (as long as he’s “working”). So while Sam remains a “victim” in the media scheme of things, his material circumstances are those of somebody who has lucked out big time. And for a while, he takes advantage of it to the point where he lords it over the hotel staff and parades around like a peacock when the fancy hits him. When a human rights organization tries to tell him that he’s being exploited at the expense of other refugees, he slams the door in their face.
The difficulty the viewer may have with this clever idea is that they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and while in the meantime we can enjoy Godefroi’s hilarious self-importance and the total hypocrisy fueling the “transgressive art” market, there’s the sinking feeling that Sam is headed for a fall or even worse. Ben Hania injects a few brilliantly affecting scenes involving terrorist tropes and long-distance romance, but in the end he has to address the elephant in the other room and opts simply to leave the door ajar.
In English, Arabic and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
The Man Who Sold His Skin home page in Japanese
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