Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania stumbled across the inspiration for her Oscar-nominated film on a trip to Le Louvre in Paris. There, she saw a retrospective dedicated to the Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye. As part of this exhibition, Tim Steiner became a living piece of art – bearing a tattoo of the artist’s work on his back.

Whilst this might come across as yet another artist trying to push the boundaries of what we perceive to be art and how we consume and react to an artist’s work, Ben Hania uses this ‘jumping off point’ to raise bigger questions about freedom, refugees, apathy and humanity.

The Man Who Sold His Skin echoes Ben Hania’s Louvre experience as it centres around Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian refugee who becomes a literal work of art for the eccentric Belgian artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw). Sam does so out of sheer desperation – he has already been arrested for an outburst on a crowded train and has since escaped from prison. Having been smuggled by his sister over the border to Lebanon, he is determined to get that all important Schengen Visa and make it to Europe. Becoming a piece of living art is, initially, simply a means to an end for him – and a financially rewarding one at that.

The film opens with a striking visual contrast. Sterile corridors of a European art gallery are fussed over by creatives who tilt their heads this way and that, worrying about the positioning of paintings worth millions of Euros. This is juxtaposed with the sight of several Syrian men – their naked, sweating bodies crammed together – being thrown into a tiny prison cell, all seemingly unaware of the charges they are facing.

But if you think you are in for an absurdist take on the ridiculousness and hyperbolic spending within the art world, you are wrong. Yes, Ben Hania does poke fun at the seemingly ruthless apathy of the wealthy, but she uses Sam’s story to highlight narratives about freedom, choice and human behaviour. In that sense, if you are looking for something as experimental and satirical as Ruben Ostland’s The Square, this is a film with a distinctly more ‘human’ element to it.

Sam’s body is no longer is own. So, whilst he may have swapped bombs and prison for hotels and caviar, he is still beholden to the whims of his creator. Does his tattoo truly highlight the plight and suffering of refugees or is he just another exhibit in the history of “human zoos”? Although, serious points aside, there is a particularly humourous scene with an art insurance dealer, who calmly recites the ways in which it would be “okay” for Sam to die so as to preserve the artwork.

Yahya Mahayni is absolutely excellent as Sam. He brings a physicality and a pathos to the character that is both dramatic and endearing. You can see every sinew in his body as he flexes his back. The scene where he moves himself round various beams of light in the museum is pretty incredible. The physical chemistry he has with his longer-for love interest, Abeer (Dea Liane) also feels so real. Sam and Abeer’s forbidden love story is yet another element to the film – one that crackles with words unspoken and feelings unclaimed. There’s some really nice camerawork – close ups around their eyes and lips – that adds to this rippling electricity between the pair.

Monica Bellucci is icy and composed as Soraya (seriously, she barely raises an eyebrow or intonates – it’s frighteningly chilly), Godefroi’s dedicated assistant. Koen De Bouw is all black eyeliner and nailpolish as the ambitious, quirky Godefroi. He sees no issues in trading in human skin. As far as he’s concerned, Sam gets a fair trade for his body. “What’s worse than being part of the system?” he purrs, “Being ignored by it.”

Ben Hania makes a particularly odious point early on and then really hammers it home as the rest of the narrative unfolds. As a piece of art – a commodity – Sam is freer to travel around Europe than he would be as someone fleeing the situation in Syria. He can recover his humanity as a piece of art but he is unwanted as a refugee. His body can be consumed; gazed upon; pointed at; photographed; laughed at. At one point, he (a person of colour) is, quite literally, up for auction. It absolutely reeks of white, monied privilege and makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The film’s ending is truly shocking as it throws not one, but two curveballs the viewers’ way. You really will find yourself gasping several times in quick succession within the final fifteen minutes or so. Ben Hania knows how to drive that emotional reaction and play with your discomfort.

The Man Who Sold His Skin perhaps doesn’t prod as deep as you might like – either at the art world or our current apathy towards the refugee crises across the world – but it’s a thoroughly engaging piece of cinema. Yahya Mahayni delivers a solid lead performance. Like the exhibition-goers, you really will be unable to take your eyes off him.

Rating: ★★★

IN CINEMAS FROM 24 SEPTEMBER 2021

ROAD TO OSCARS 2021 – INTERNATIONAL FEATURE