THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN – movie review

THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN (L’homme qui vendu sa peau)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania
Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/21/21
Tunisia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards

Image result for the man who sold his skin poster

Sylvia Sims sang the classic song that opens: “You’d never think they go together/ But they certainly do/ The combination of English muffins/ And Irish Stew.” Top chefs know how to mix quite a number of things that would not have been attempted years ago. In the same way, stories combine groups from different classes, nationalities, and religions. Suprisingly, sometimes they find common ground. One example is found in female director Kaouther Ben Hania’s sophomore feature, which is the official entry of Tunisia into the 93rd Academy Awards competition. She mixes Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) a poor, uneducated Syrian, one who has been arrested for comically inciting rebellion on a train, with Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a world-renowned contemporary artist. They find that they can do business together profitably, but in signing a contract that represents a document that binds Faust together with Mephistopheles, the oppressed Arab sells his soul and is ultimately disgraced. Or is he? Ben Hania, whose first film, “Beauty and the Dogs,” tracks a college student brutally assaulted by police officers, turns now to a topic of more international resonance, bringing Syria, Lebanon and Belgium into the bargain.

“L’homme qui vendu sa peau,” the original title which translates directly into the English, begins smashingly on a rail car filled with people who break into cheers when Sam announces that he is in love with his seatmate, Abeer (Dea Liane). His love is requited, and in his moment of ecstasy, he calls for freedom for Syria and is arrested. The plot turns, in fact, on whether Sam himself is a free man or one who in later moments has lost all dignity, shaming his country as well. As our President would say, here’s the deal: When Sam breaks out of jail and meets Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) and his elegant assistant Saroya (Monica Bellucci) in Lebanon, he is offered unusual work. The artist will tattoo a huge Schengen visa on Sam’s back. Sam will be at Jeffrey and Soraya’s beck-and-call to show up in museums and galleries, his back exposed, his head down in a pose of humiliation. In return Sam will be able to travel throughout Europe and receive a sizable commission when the artwork is sold to a collector. Here’s quite a new form of slavery, one that leads an organization that opposes the exploitation of Syrian refugees to sue against mortification of any of its citizens.

Today’s so-called political far-left calls capitalism nothing more than the turning of human beings in commodities, possibly using this film to advance its case. Yet Sam may be able to stay in five-star hotels, “bought off and sold out” as some would say, while Sam enjoys room service caviar, but in the end he is expected (by the movie audience) to regret his agreement to the Faustian deal. Look: Sam becomes a celebrity, able to meet up in Brussels with Soroya—who had entered into her own Faustian bargain by marrying Ziad (Saad Lostan), a rich diplomatic official at the embassy in Brussels.

Concluding moments come off like an exhibition of sedate fireworks that had turned into a thunderous climax. The film’s underlying dark humor comes to the fore, leading to a satisfying conclusion. This is a bold, original work, full of twists, enjoying an ensemble of superb performances especially by Mahayni in only his second full narrative performance.

In Arabic, French, Flemish and English with English subtitles (displayed even when English is spoken!)

103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

AT ETERNITY’S GATE – movie review

AT ETERNITY’S GATE

CBS Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter:  Jean-Claude Carriere, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Cast:  Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Mathieu Amalric,  Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup
Screened at: Bryant Park Hotel, NYC, 11/10/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What is the principal selling point made by real estate agents when they try to sell pricey apartments?  You’d probably think it was the space that the dwelling affords, though agents try to get away with calling a space that looks like your closet “cozy.”  A most important selling point aside from the quality of the neighborhood and its schools is the amount of light the occupants might enjoy for most of the day.  If you’re not spenders your winters in Iceland, you would indeed be tempted to loosen your wallet if your digs offered brilliant sunlight.

And sunlight is probably the key word when you think of Vincent Van Gogh.  He is portrayed by Willem Dafoe as the director’s accurate image of the artist, the movie itself often an impressionistic look at the post-impressionist painter. (By post-impressionism is meant the attempt by artists of the late 19th and early 20th century to opt for color, line and form rather than the naturalism of the impressionists, emphasizing the artist’s emotional responses–a new style that would lead shortly to expressionism.)

Rather than a biopic, Schnable’s “Eternity’s Gate” is based largely on the painter’s letters, and much of the content of the movie is fictional, but the basic look of Van Gogh’s last years showcases his poverty from the inability to sell his paintings.  At one point he tells a priest that he may have been born too early, that like Jesus, nobody talked about him during his lifetime.

As played by Willem Dafoe who is made up in the image of the painter, Van Gogh has psychological problems which we today all know because the best known fact about the painter’s character is that in a rage he sliced off part of his ear and presented it to a woman.  Though born into an upper-middle class Dutch family, he relies on his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) for support of 250 francs a month, which allows him a decent enough way to live while he does the only thing he says that he knows how to do: paint.  Whether he is hallucinatory in several parts of the movie, whether Schnabel creates scenes from the director’s own imagination, or whether these scenes actually occurred, is anybody’s guess.  For example, at one point he is out in nature on a bright day—the sort of day that keeps him within the limits of sanity.  He is attacked by a class of school children who ignore their teacher and run to him shouting “a painter, a painter,” as though they had just discovered a Ben and Jerry’s out in nowhere.  They upset his paintings and cause Van Gogh to shout “Get out of here,” which is not unlike what occurs later as some kids of about twelve years of age throw rocks at his head and even later when he is threatened by a couple young people with guns.

What comes to mind at some point in the story is whether mental instability is the sina qua non of great artistry. Would Van Gogh have been a greater painter if he were completely normal like some organization man who decades later might be seen riding the French metro?  As a digression consider this example: Neil Simon, who came across in America as someone who could pass for a businessman, knocked out a great many plays and drew large audiences, but none of his writing could be called the work of genius.  Somehow, you may think a guy like Van Gogh is great because he is driven by his demons to do nothing other than paint.

There is little melodrama and even less humor in this serious, albeit imaginative, study.  Some of the interesting conversations include one with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) working in an asylum for mentally disturbed.  The cleric has no use for one of the paintings, finding it ugly, and indeed it was not one of Van Gogh’s brilliant and famous studies such as “The Starry Night.”  In one conversation with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac, who looks the part), he listens as another rebel against the current style of painting states his intention to go to Madagascar, but of course will wind up in French Polynesia.  The final scene you expect Van Gogh’s to shoot himself in the chest, but fiction prevails as young people torment the man with a gun.  Or is that his imagination?

Considerable imagination goes into Schnabel’s portrait or a painter, one which actually gives us a better picture of Van Gogh’s mental state than would a literal biopic.

110 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B