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The Man Who Sold His Skin review – art world satire feels like a forgery

This Oscar-nominated Tunisian film finds an awkward avenue for the refugee drama that's neither compelling or clever enough

As the first Tunisian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, making its director, Kaouther Ben Hania, the first Muslim woman to be featured in the category, The Man Who Sold His Skin arrives with a level of prestige that seems to promise something remarkable. Unfortunately, despite all the good will towards what is a nominally important film, this fusing of Syrian refugee crisis drama and art world satire feels more akin to a forgery than a genuine original.

The film’s title certainly doesn’t shy away from its neat concept. As a title card informs us, The Man Who Sold His Skin was inspired by “Tim,” a 2006 piece by Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye. Tim Steiner is a living, breathing artwork, with tattoos inked by Delvoye completely covering his back. He received a third of his own sale price and is contracted to sit in galleries three times a year. After his death, the skin from his back will be removed and framed, prolonging his existence as an artwork beyond something as trivial as his own life.

And so the film opens with gallery assistants affixing a framed tattooed piece of skin onto a stark white wall, before transporting us to a hazy, sunlit Raqqa, Syria, in 2011. Sam Ali (a lean, quietly defiant Yahya Mahayni) is in love with Abeer (Dea Liane). So in love, in fact, that a marriage proposal in a crowded train carriage becomes a spontaneous celebration with singing, dancing, and Sam leading chants for freedom and revolution.

As a result, he's quickly arrested but escapes across the border into Lebanon, where he pines for his lost love, who is forced to marry a well-connected government official by her family. The couple's mawkish farewell, in which they are unsubtly separated by a fence, is an omen of the sentimentality to come, though initially the film quickens its pace as Sam falls in line with a devilishly brilliant artist (Koen De Bouw).

Choosing to sell the skin off his back rather than his soul, he's tattooed with an image of a Schengen visa, a comment on life as a Syrian refugee, before being whisked away to Belgium by a blonde-wigged Monica Bellucci to be gawked at by tourists and schoolchildren. Has he surrendered his humanity to become a commodity?

Comparisons to Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning The Square are inevitable, but The Man Who Sold His Skin lacks that film’s jet-black absurdist humour and flawed but far more perceptive lampooning of the art world. With its use of luxurious scarlets and deep blue tones, it's stylish enough, but the imagery here is neither subtle nor inventive – problematic for a film supposedly interested in aesthetics.

There are narrative problems, too. It’s impossible to feel invested in Sam and Abeer's relationship when the latter is devoid of any personality, and a few third-act revelations are positively groan-inducing. While Yahya Mahayni proves he's one to look out for, The Man Who Sold His Skin remains watchable but never properly compelling. Neither a biting satire nor a heartfelt love story, it’s all surface and no substance.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is showing in UK cinemas from 24 September.

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