“A Skin So Soft” is Denis Côté’s hypnotic observational documentary about six Canadian bodybuilders. The men, identified slowly throughout the film, are introduced doing mundane things in their daily lives — eating, brushing their teeth, even moisturizing. They are also seen working out, flexing, and, in the case of Maxim, using his body strength — and a harness around his chest — to pull a large truck across a parking lot.
The film both objectifies and humanizes these men. They are admired for their physiques, but they are hyper-conscious of what it takes to create and maintain their impressive bodies. As one subject acknowledges, “The body doesn’t lie.” Meaning: it will do what it is asked but will also indicate if or when that is too much.
Côté emphasizes this principle as the men reveal their strengths and limitations. Jean-Francois explains to a photographer why he doesn’t smile when he poses; his white teeth provide a stark contrast against his thick dark beard. Ronald, the film’s Asian bodybuilder, tells his family that his chest is perfect but he needs to work on his back. Alex, the youngest subject, struggles to get his girlfriend to be as motivated as he is to work out and train. These episodes subtly suggest why these men, each of whom seems shy, quiet, and reserved, got into bodybuilding: it gives them a goal, a sense of purpose, and, by extension, a feeling of self-worth. There are no interview scenes to establish any kind of a background on the men.
Some of the film’s most interesting scenes feature Benoit, a former bodybuilder who is now a trainer and life coach. Episodes of him coaching a woman on her feelings and attitudes and meeting a bodybuilder in a hotel room to critique his posing are fascinating, helping viewers understand how he helps them achieve their goals.
In contrast, Max, the strongman, is seen moving giant tires and working out with his wife. Their relationship comes into sharper focus when she questions his grumpiness at the breakfast table and he responds with silence. An extended sequence in which Max, who is also a wrestler, gets in the ring for a rematch with a tag team that had previously beat him, is even more revealing, emphasizing the intense concentration he brings to his work.
The film’s most intriguing, if enigmatic subject is Cedric, a handsome man who is first seen at his breakfast table watching a video that prompts him to cry. This moment may indicate this tough guy has a sensitive side. Equally ambiguous is a later scene of Cedric working out at the gym while another attractive bodybuilder eyes his routine. The two men might look like they are ogling or cruising each other — especially when they are in the locker room together — but more likely, they are sizing each other up as competition.
Côté may play up the homoeroticism of the sport, but the closest thing to intimacy or touching any of these guys get is when Cedric endures a painful body massage, Jean-Francois undergoes a skin treatment, and Max employs a wrestling move on another guy.
It’s amusing to see these big, buff, brawny he-men get spray tanned, have makeup applied to their faces, and endure depilatory procedures to get their skin so smooth. “A Skin So Soft” walks a tightrope in how it presents the vanity of these guys, practically fetishizing them and asking viewers what makes these six men beautiful, erotic, or perhaps even grotesque.
Côté never directly investigates how the subjects feel about the success they have achieved — or hope to. That may be part of his point — to look at these guys who are working on their bodies to be looked at. But this raises the question: why do we watch?
It is certainly deliberate that these men are presented as somewhat inscrutable. The dialogue in the film is kept to an absolute minimum; it is almost jarring when a brief conversation takes place. Côté’s approach might frustrate viewers who want to know more about his subjects: How did they get on this career path, and what do they make of their lives? Why did they agree to appear in this film, and what was the director’s criteria for selecting them? Perhaps none of this matters.
The last 20 minutes of “A Skin So Soft” brings the six guys together for a camping trip in the country. They bond over swimming and posing for each other on a makeshift dais. They sit around a fire, where Jean-Francois plays a guitar. This may be the only sequence in this transfixing film where the men all appear relaxed and happy. Their camaraderie is affectionate and endearing.
A SKIN SO SOFT | Directed by Denis Côté | In French with English subtitles | Breaking Glass Pictures | Opens Jul. 6 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyf