“A SKIN SO SOFT”
Denis Côté’s “A Skin So Soft” looks at the muscular bodies and quotidian lives of six male Canadian bodybuilders through wordless passages. Côté’s camera favors the silence of daily moments when these physically hardened men put down their weights and become “fundamentally human.”
Côté brings together details about his subjects from snatches of their lives in which he finds poetry. One of the documentary’s bodybuilders, Cédric Doyon, smokes a cigarette, then has his mother critique the finer points of his poses. Without relying on talking heads or exposition, the film arrives at a mysterious assessment of its subjects’ lives, never settling into asking what it means to painstakingly devote oneself to bodybuilding.
Côté’s is philosophical in his deconstruction of on-screen action of the first half of the film the daily routines of each of its subjects. Jean-François Bouchard combs his long goatee and applies lotion to his skin and this is in contrast to the man’s muscle definition. Côté challenges the stereotypical displays of masculinity and belligerence that weightlifters have been associated with.
“A Skin So Soft” is a counterpoint to a corporate image of athletics. The only time that we hear rhetoric of advertising in the documentary is when one subject offers advice to another but even then, the filmmaking points to small bits of business that counter an acceptance of the words at face value. Alexis Légaré, the youngest of the film’s subjects, tries to convince his girlfriend to take up weightlifting, but she doubts that she has the time to do so. Her decision not to do so pushes Alexis into an unseen role as a motivational speaker, Côté initially keeps the camera trained on her hands that fidget with a pair of Alexis’s hand grips. The shot of Alexis’s face shows a man frustrated by his partner’s unwillingness “to adopt a demeanor that precisely matches his own.” We see how Alexis’s obsession does not let him see the self-aggrandizing nature of his speech.
We go beyond the gym floor and the shiny oiled skins of the participants but that does not mean that they are totally sensitive. We see Ronald Yang as a man who lifts weights and spends time with his extended family. Maxim Lemire playfully argues with his wife and daughter about why he’s in a “grumpy” mood. Benoit Lapierre is a conscientious physical therapist during the day and a bodybuilder by night. There is no simplistic conception of how bodily exertion might neatly mix with familial devotion. The film is a lesson on how filmmakers see past the most explicit attributes of their subjects.
Denis Côté watches his subject from unexpected angles with the message that a film or a story must be ambivalent, ambiguous and his way of looking at things must be oblique. The theme here is bodybuilding and the gaze he takes is steady but often unexpected. We get to know the men through the contours of their skin and their lives. One has a dog, another a toddler, another has a fellow bodybuilder for a wife and a sideline in wrestling, while the fourth a girlfriend who might enjoy the sport herself. What all four have in common is a dedication to their craft.
Côté mixes scenes of them pumping iron, taking the poses that they need to accentuate their muscles in competition or doing day-to-day activities and the result becomes a meditative study of man and muscle. There’s a dedication and determination here in eating the right kind of food. We simply observe the men as they move around; the film avoids over-interpretation, working hard to leave room for each person watching to find their own narrative as to why each man might have chosen body building as his sport.
There is a hint of fun all through the film as we look beyond this carefully created cliché in what has gone before and what follows. Côté’s shows his subjects’ stories. and lets us draw our own conclusions.