You’ve heard about taking the shirt off someone’s back, but what about their skin? In this interesting delve into the exploitation of refugees, the commodification of human life and the vacuousness of the high-art world, that question almost literally forms the central concern of the plot.
After Syrian national Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) is forced to leave behind both his girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane) and the country he lives in due to an unfortunate outpouring of emotion on a packed train, he finds himself slumming it on the streets of Beirut. By chance, he’s drawn into the orbit of wealthy artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his agent Soraya (Monica Bellucci), who wish to use Sam’s back as the canvas for Jeffrey’s latest work. In exchange for giving up his autonomy and submitting to subjugation as an object rather than a person, Sam will find himself with a visa to travel freely.
Separated from his beloved (who has now married to please her upper-class family), Sam impulsively accepts the commission and initially, it seems as though the deal is a rosy one for all. Sam is able to base himself in the city where Abeer now lives, stay in five-star hotels and enjoy far greater freedoms than he did as a refugee. However, it soon becomes clear that those freedoms are all but illusory; although his agreement with Jeffrey and Soraya was ostensibly made on an equal footing, the two parties’ differing stations in life mean that they were never close to equilibrium – and the latter aren’t afraid to lean on their advantage to keep Sam in line.
The film explores the inhumanity and disposability of the art world in a similar manner to Ruben Östlund’s The Square, or how Nicolas Winding Refn does regarding the fashion industry with The Neon Demon. However, the thread of refugee exploitation adds further intrigue, which works well to distract from the sometimes insufferable nature of the former subject matter, while the addition of a love story leavens what could have descended into drudgery. For the majority of the film, these three strands are expertly interwoven into a highly watchable and thought-provoking piece of cinema.
As the plot develops, however, writer and director Kaouther Ben Hania is guilty of playing all three hands a little too heavily and a little hurriedly, especially in the denouement. Although Sam’s plight is treated sensitively enough for the most part, the final act favours an implausible plot twist that sacrifices the dignity of what had come before for an undeserved and out-of-place neatness in its resolution. This takes something of the sheen off what is otherwise an absolute gem of a film, but it remains a worthy watch all the same.
Screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021