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The Man Who Sold His Skin sounds like a Bowie song, and the idea of an artist painting on a human’s back — reminded me of the painting someone did where they recreated all the Pink Floyd album covers on naked women’s backs at a swimming pool. 

I was thrilled about seeing this because it was the first Tunisian film ever nominated for the Best International Feature for an Oscar, and it is playing at the Angelika Film Center, my favorite theatre in town. 

I saw the trailer for it the week before at the Angelika, and the vibrant colors, striking composition, and cool premise for this Faustian satire of the art world…seemed right up my alley. 

Director Kaouther Ben Hania is the first Muslim woman to get this far in the Academy Awards race (although this film will lose to Another Round, the most highly overrated foreign film of the year). And the shame of it all is, there was a movie about the art world that should have gotten some Oscar nominations this year — The Burnt Orange Heresy — my favorite movie of last year. But that never got a proper release because of Covid.

This story, a lot like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, was inspired by a real event. The director was at the Louvre when she saw Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s piece called “Tim.” His skin was covered with the artist’s tattoos, and the person that ended up “buying” the piece — would get the skin after the death of Tim. Yikes. Imagine putting that on the wall next to your Gauguin.

This story begins in 2011 in Raqqa, where Sam (Yahya Mahayni) proposes to girlfriend Abeer (Dee Liane, who has the most beautiful, light crystal blue eyes). He excitedly says, “It’s a revolution, so let’s be free!” 

Uh, bad choice of words. 

The jubilation and dancing on the train is shot in an interesting fashion. Unfortunately for the couple, it’s also shot on someone’s phone, and Sam is arrested.

Abeer eventually marries a rich guy and ends up in Germany, and the two seem heartbroken, as they speak to each other over Facetime. It’s hard to fault her for marrying when it’s her only way out of the war-torn country.

Now a refugee, Sam sneaks into various art gallery openings to get the free cheese and booze, when he gets a sweet offer from a woman named Soraya (Monica Bellucci), who is willing to pack up the leftovers for him, he curses her and storms out. Jeffrey Godefroi (Belgian actor Koen De Bouw), who is called the “most expensive living artist” chases him down to find out his story. He likes Sam’s anger and energy, and offers him a deal. He’ll buy his soul…err…his back. He’ll create a piece of art, and this will let him travel around the world. Even to meet up with Abeer.

What I liked about these various characters is that the artist, a Jeff Koons type, isn’t some sinister person you think he might be. The man who married Abeer isn’t beating her or being horrible. She just…doesn’t love him.

Even the artist’s assistant, who seems willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, has some humanity. The surprising thing is it’s Sam that you don’t care for. He is angry at everyone around him and it’s hard to have the sympathy for him that we should. When I said this to my wife she snapped, “He’s a refugee! He lost the woman he loves! So he’s a bit angry.”

The film is also a bit uneven in the different tones it takes. It’s a shame because this satire about a man who becomes a piece of meat (don’t we always?)…should be a bit more powerful. It somehow loses its emotional core. 

There’s a funny scene where Sam is having some work done on his back (spoiler alert: it’s a disgusting close-up of a pimple being popped). The sign at the gallery states, “this exhibition is currently being restored.” Perfect. It seems a few more moments of levity could have been used. 

I also thought it could have been a better knock on the rich folks in the art world, treating the subject poorly; or at least what constitutes a piece of “art.”

But just as I was losing steam with where this story took us, it ended up blowing me away with a brilliant ending.

My wife liked it a bit more than I did.

3 stars out of 5.