The Man Who Sold His Skin review – art-world satire runs only skin deep

Here is a muddled caper of movie that doesn’t know what it wants to say; it doesn’t work as a satire of the international art market, nor as a commentary on the racism of white European culture. And its attitude to Syria is undermined by a silly and unconvincing ending that leaves a strange taste in the mouth. It is inspired by the Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye and his human artwork called Tim: in 2008, Delvoye tattooed an elaborate punk-crucifixion scene on the back of a Zurich tattoo parlour owner named Tim Steiner, who in return for a cash payment agreed to sit still with his tattooed back on show in galleries for a certain number of times a year and have his tattooed skin surgically removed and put on display after his death. And of course it is this macabre destiny that lends fascination to the ongoing live events.

This movie from writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania imagines a Syrian man, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) in love with a well-born woman Abeer (Dea Liane). But when he is wrongfully arrested by the tyrannical Assad government, Abeer’s family pressures her into marrying a smooth diplomat, Ziad (Saad Lostan), who takes her to live with him in Brussels where he is an embassy attache. Sam Ali manages to escape from police custody (the least of the film’s implausibilities) and get over the border into Lebanon where, hungry and hard up, he gatecrashes art exhibitions and gobbles the free canapes. And this is where he is approached by a preeningly arrogant artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), who looks like Roger De Bris, the theatre director in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. If Sam will agree to the humiliation of having a massive “Schengen visa” tattooed on his back, then Jeffrey will be legally able to transport him to Brussels as a conceptual art object rather than a human being, as part of a show about the commodification of humanity, and Sam will be able to see Abeer.

This film is sort of asking us to giggle at the absurdity of the art scene, to frown at its callousness, but also at some level to celebrate its daringly transgressive social commentary; this does after all enjoy the blessing of Delvoye himself, who has an arch cameo. The supposedly important themes of immigrants and Syria are cancelled by its naive flippancy. Maybe the real-life artwork Tim is more interesting.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is released on 24 September in cinemas.

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