Not Rated, which I find really bizarre considering that it is an Academy Award nominated movie. I actually don't know where to put this one, if I was in the position to make this decision. I have a feeling that the MPAA would stick this at an R rating, because the intended audience is adults. I think I remember this movie having all kinds of language. There's also this oddly sexual nature to the movie, considering that technically the movie is about an affair. But the movie deals with heavy themes that would be lost on younger children. Regardless, the movie remains unrated.
DIRECTOR: Kaouther Ben Hania
Almost to add stress to my life, almost all of the foreign language Academy Award nominees dropped the weekend of the Oscars. See, I tend not to see the foreign language options for the Academy Awards. It's not by choice. It is just that it is extremely hard to see these films in the Midwest. They almost never are available to stream. Most of the time, no theaters pick these movies up unless there is major buzz for them. If there is a theater, it's an arthouse theater in the middle of nowhere with limited seating and limited showtimes. So I tend to watch the foreign entries after the Academy Awards, if at all. But because the Oscars were so late this year and because Covid convinced distributors to try streaming services, I'm going to look at this as a blessing. Yeah, I was planning on taking a little break from writing. I guess I'll just have to push that back another week.
If you are you to press my buttons and make me up in arms, make a movie about the plight of the refugee. We have it so good here. I mean, sure, we're in the middle of a culture war where seditionists tried to take over the Capitol Building. But I also have the freedom to leave. That's a weird thing to consider. I often wonder the philosophy of a lot of people. Perhaps it is my weak sense of patriotism, but I never understand the need for people to stay in their homelands, regardless of strife. But The Man Who Sold His Skin is about a man who is trapped. Not only has he been forced to abandon his home due to unjust laws, but is then stuck away from his fiancee / wife. (It's really questionable who is legally married in this movie, but that's really a point that is not necessary to the story.) The movie, like Barfly's very thin commentary about golden cages, will often comment on the nature of restrictions in general. Sam has it bad in his homeland.
He loses the love of his life and his sense of community. When he escapes, he lives the life of a refugee. If you want to see me get really emotionally invested, tell me a story about refugees. He has made it out from the place that was trying to imprison him and torture him. It's a big win for him. But now he's facing a lifetime of remedial jobs and staying under the radar so he doesn't get sent back to the place trying to arrest him. He finds himself appropriately unfulfilled. He's struggling to eat. His friends seem kind of toxic. It's all around a bad situation. It's better than where he was, but it is still pretty rough. He's also locked into that scenario. When he agrees to become an art piece, Sam sees this as a big step up. He's allowed to be seen by society. He will have money coming in. He's allowed to see the love of his life. He's living in a big five-star hotel. But he has also sacrificed his humanity. After all, the very thinly veiled subtext about Sam's value is that he isn't a person anymore. Heck, I can't even say "thinly veiled" because the movie straight up says its theme clearly.
And that's when the whole film gets meta. I can't at all condemn this movie for what it is doing because I absolutely adore the message that's both confrontational and well-presented. But there is a weird meta element that I keep thinking about. Ben Hania, the director, is telling a story about how the art world both brings attention and abuses the lower levels of society. For the sake of clarity, I'm going to be using the term "refugee" because the movie specifically talks about refugees, but it is easy to use the term "downtrodden" as well. Jeffrey understands Sam's situation remarkably well upon meeting him. He sees this guy who has no sense of identity because his entire life has been about survival. A dual morality starts building within Jeffrey. The altruistic side sees that this man's story needs to be heard not only for Sam's sake, but for all in the same predicament. But Jeffrey gets paid extremely well for being a provocateur. It is his business and his purpose. In that moment, Sam the survivor becomes an art instillation. He provokes a response by wearing the clothing of the villain.
But isn't that kind of what Ben Hania is doing? Okay, it's on a far smaller level. In a certain sense, I'm doing the same thing when I check my ever dwindling readership numbers. Ben Hania is using the plight of the refugee and the downtrodden to bring artistic merit to himself. It's a Catch-22. If The Man Who Sold His Skin garnered no attention, the message of exploitation is lost. But by drawing the attention of awards ceremonies, the artist is low-key complicit in the exploitation of the downtrodden. I mean, I'm firmly on the side of the artist condemning the exploiters out there. But there is an element that feels like self-flagellation. Ben Hania, as an artist, hates artist...which in turn feels like hating himself. Because if there was ever an avatar for Ben Hania, it's not Sam; it's Jeffrey.
But at the end of the day, the movie is about giving people visibility and agency. People need to be seen. Sometimes, that may be in dehumanizing ways. I'm not saying we do that. But we need to get messages out there without being part of the problem itself. Sam problem is, as much as he is physically seen, his humanity keeps slipping away because he is the biproduct of a larger cause. Even those people who are advocating for his human rights are unaware that they, too, are exploiting him for their own goals. It's dark, but it is at least talking about something that may be something we don't like to talk about.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.