The Man Who Sold His Skin (Review)

In this modern take on the Faust story, the central theme is appropriation, specifically pertaining to how modern systems appropriate and dehumanise the already vulnerable, be this through the art world or on a global, political level. The tragic irony is that the film itself feels uncomfortably appropriative, as it takes advantage of real world issues – and a surface level understanding of the art world – to convey a very silly, and surface level story. This is a film that wants to say bold things about modern life so, it just says them. We have overly expository pseudo-characters who just spout themes in single scenes, allowing the film itself to do its own thing. There is no thematic exploration here, there is a just a premise that evokes certain ideas so the characters tell us those ideas.

This premise sounds cool for a second but is really rather stupid. A Syrian man wishes to gain a visa so an artist, due to a host of contrivances, decides to tattoo him so that his back becomes an artwork – and in return gives him a visa. The tattoo itself is also of a visa, this is so the artist can explain his metaphor directly to the camera – thus making his art pretty pointless as he might as well have just written an op-ed about the Syrian Refugee crisis. His grand point: goods travel easily between countries (which is not wholly true) yet humans do not. We treat goods better than we treat humans (the film here engages in surface level anti-consumerist stuff that, rather than dealing with how humans are treated in a specific sense, ducks down into weightless analogies), therefore he has made a human into a good. This human is now an art piece and can travel. But can he?

Rather than following this train of thought (which is directly explained to the audience), the film instead focuses on limitation. The point was apparently that goods travel freely and objects are treated better than people but then the film shows us the person, now having to stand in a gallery and be an art piece, be treated poorly and have limited freedom. So the messaging changes. It is better to not be an object, but objects are treated better than people… So don’t be a person, but also don’t be an object. The person you should be, it seems, is the overt caricature of a contemporary artist that is one of our main characters. This depiction of an artists feels straight out of an early 2000s sketch show but the film is not a comedy, the film seems to think this is the art world. We learn at the start that this man puts his signature on anything and it is worth millions – this idea of random objects being worth millions due to a change in context is also brought up later, as if it is the most original observation in the world. So then we just accept that this man is a genius and that everybody in the art world just thinks his tattoo piece (apparently he is a tattooist, why not – this film doesn’t differentiate between art forms) is a masterwork. There is little talk of scandal and no nuance or interest. It is a thing. It happens. It is celebrated and then the narrative decides to jump into the ‘maybe it wasn’t a good idea’, which seemed apparent from the start.

Every issue that could – and would – have been pre-empted, or discussed, is just allowed to happen as we watch the Faust arc do the Faust thing. It is just a heap of empty contrivances that has no real link to the actual world people live in. And this is why the connection to the crisis in Syria feels so crass. The film has so little focus on these themes, and so little to say about them beyond the hugely reductive or blindingly obvious. It instead gets lost in redundant side-plots or attempts to get as weird as it can. The result of this is a distancing and unenjoyable film in which even the neon hued visual flair starts to become annoying. This aesthetic is yet another symbol of how the film is all empty surface, but it does make for a few sequences that look cool – but that also fall apart if you think about them at all.

The ideas this film orbits around are fascinating. The concept of human trafficking as told through the art market, as a critique of a bourgeoise class blind to the issues they tacitly create, that’s very interesting. That is not the film though; that is one thing it touches on, and doesn’t go as far as that one sentence, for a second before going onto something else. This is the kind of narrative that would make for a good, self-aware, pulpy short story. It is a campy cautionary tale that’s fun, in theory. But this film is not that. In this film that conceit is placed next to vital realities that should be treated better.

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