The Man Who Sold His Skin initially feels like misery porn but quickly transforms into a witty satire about pretentious artists and pop culture consumption. Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania grounds her Oscar-nominated film with a sweeping international love story, one that allows for a meta-commentary about global refugees. The Man Who Sold His Skin gets a little too didactic with its final act messaging, but the strong central performances make the overall experience worthwhile.
In The Man Who Sold His Skin, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) falls in love with an upper class woman (Dea Liane as Abeer) in his native Syria, but then flees to Lebanon after being wrongly detained. The protagonist hopes to reunite with his lover in Belgium, even though the woman has moved on with a wealthy entrepreneur. Then, Sam receives a proposal he can’t refuse — a world-renowned artist named Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) offers to tattoo a Schengen visa on his back, which means that the refugee can travel all over Europe as a human painting of sorts. Sam’s grand gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by Abeer, who observes from a place of privilege while reassessing her personal values.
Mahayni’s acting in The Man Who Sold His Skin reminds of recent performances by the American actor Joaquin Phoenix, or even Michael Shannon in the 2021 series Nine Perfect Strangers. All three individuals have distinct facial features, and can instantaneously convey concealed anger with the turn of a lip. As a character, Sam doesn’t embrace the circus-like atmosphere of his existence but rather glides across the world stage with a look of skepticism, knowing that no one really carries about his opinions or backstory. The inclusion of Monica Bellucci as the conniving art dealer Soraya Waldy effectively reinforces the film’s societal power dynamics — even when Sam achieves his main objective, there’s still a major class obstacle to overcome.
Early on in The Man Who Sold His Skin, Ben Hania establishes the chemistry between Sam and Abeer through a wonderful train scene that shifts from tension to exhilaration to chaos. Most importantly, the inciting incident showcases Liane’s striking features and infectious spirit. If the audience feels moved by the characters’ relationship, then one can more deeply empathize with the protagonist beyond his plight as a refugee. Sam needs to relive that train moment like an addict needs to re-experience a first high. And so the concept of death looms over each act in The Man Who Sold His Skin, forcing the audience to grapple with the idea of suicide, but also the fact that Sam could be harmed for political and financial reasons.
The Man Who Sold His Skin loses momentum in the final act, perhaps because the director focuses more on the bigger picture instead of the organic energy between the two leads. It’s such a joy to watch Liane, an actress who could carry a film of her own as Abeer — it could be a romantic comedy, a neorealist-style drama or even a spy thriller. There’s so much to explore with the character and her perspective, but it’s Sam’s motivations, of course, that drive the story. The Man Who Sold His Skin mostly ties up all the loose ends, but sometimes it’s best to keep the audience wondering, or to at least give the viewer more contextual information to sort through about the main supporting character. The Man Who Sold His Skin isn’t a traditional art house drama, so Ben Hania’s final act decisions make sense.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.