“A SKIN SO SOFT”
An Intimate Bodybuilding Documentary
“Soft” isn’t the word that comes to mind when looking at the over-pumped muscles of the Canadian bodybuilders featured In Denis Cote’s documentary. The French title, which translates as “your skin so smooth,” is a more sensible title. The subjects of Côté’s fascination with this extreme form of self-creation project a hyper-charged masculinity that’s undercut by rituals traditionally associated with femininity, from make-up and bronzers to the whole act of displaying one’s body for admiration.
Côté doesn’t emphasize this as he weaves together portraits of six bodybuilders that push personal details and large statements to the margins. Cote focuses on the surface of things knowing that, when images are well chosen and the presentation is right, the film can offer a wealth of details.
There are a few scenes at competitions, but these are secondary in nature to the film, even if they’re primary to most of these guys’ lives. Côté uses an understated, non-interventionist approach to show the daily lives of these men, which by the very nature of their pumped-up bodies has a built-in exaggeration.
The film’s biggest fascination is in the duality of man and muscle: it’s hard not to make animalistic comparisons when talking about their looks and behavior. Côté assures them a humanity as well, without trying to analyze their obsession with this extravagant concept of masculinity, nor the need for self-display.
We meet four bodybuilders, a personal trainer and a strongman wrestler. The participants do not speak much aside from gruffs, chomps, snorts, snores and some of the most astonishing breathing patterns you are likely to hear. Côté shows us the pervasive silent stoicism of this breed of 20th-century male, a cocktail wrought in an atmosphere of pseudoscience constructed with the help of self-help doctrines, inspirational quotes and fragile masculinity.
Each of the six lives is examined individually. The camera starts on the largest and details his precise beauty regimen. The physique is extreme, the vanity particular. A younger man drinks down his food, hyperventilates, and viewers will worry that his head might pop. A truck tugger and tire flipper spends a panicked few days almost mute before a local entertainment wrestling bout. His wife faces a brick wall. Elsewhere, a young bodybuilder accosts his somewhat bemused girlfriend for her lack of commitment to a weights routine. A mystic-cum-fitness coach sporting some curious labyrinth marks on his head appears and provides the longest stretches of dialogue, earnestly whispering garbled diagnoses and training tips to several clients, all of whom return blank faces and supreme concentration. Finally, the cheeriest muscle man merely talks about the lopsided nature of his muscle build. Where the film succeeds most is by bringing these men into each other’s company and they finally head off to a woodland retreat together. It is a sweet, hilariously homoerotic encounter.
Throughout, the film’s blurring of the boundary between reality and invention is as gentle as Côté’s treatment of his subject. The focus is on regimes of exercise and diet, preparations for photo shoots and competitions, and the brief gaps between these all-consuming activities, with each individual piece of these six daily routines filmed with a sense of quiet calm that finds the right balance between tenderness and detachment. hold them.
Very little is explained in this near-silent doc and in real terms, these men (and two women, both given satellite status to their male partners) occupy a pretty marginal place in the world of sports, or the world of anything else.