If you think A Skin So Soft is a puzzlingly tender name for a documentary about bodybuilders, you’re on the right track. Quebec’s Denis Cote offers the anti-Pumping Iron in this quiet observational film, lingering in intimate moments with men who flex for a living and (with perhaps one exception) finding none of the alpha-male energy we might expect. Like Michael Del Monte’s recent fest entry Transformer, which followed a pro bodybuilder’s coming out as a trans woman, this doc seeks the vulnerability in subjects who live in pursuit of iron-man ideals many of us find ridiculous. It’s a niche art house project to be sure, but an oddly charming one.
Having already made one movie about a fringe sport (his Curling won awards at Locarno), Cote here feels no need to explain the world his six characters inhabit. It may be a while, in fact, before we notice that one is not like the others: Maxim Lemire is a professional wrestler and strongman who has built up the strength to drag a semi tractor across a parking lot but is not interested in the cut-and-ripped definition pursued by the others. (In a film without narration, titles or interviews, we only catch a couple of the six subjects’ names in moments of conversation.)
Finds the vulnerable side of professional he-men.
The other five men range from a youth who’s just setting out on the bodybuilding path — he weighs his meals on a scale, while his elders seem to intuitively know what they can eat — to men whose bodies are preposterously articulated towers of muscle. For the picture’s first 20 or so minutes, we meet these men in near silence as they move through daily rituals. A massive bald man whose black beard is as imposing as his body grooms himself for the day, then picks shoes from a closet full floor-to-ceiling with sneakers; a shorter but very broad-shouldered Asian man struggles to take selfies in his garage after half-assedly taping his camera phone to the ceiling.
Most intriguing is the man whose shaved head has pug-like wrinkles, who we meet as he’s consulting with an unnamed female client: He moves his hand rapidly around her, touching her lightly and testing the resistance of her outstretched limbs. This appears to be a kind of body work that pairs massage training with emotional therapy and New Age psychic intuition. Later, we’ll hear him refer to something he’s doing as “Neuro Rehab Technique”; while that sounds like malarkey, his sensitivity and attention to his subjects is clearly doing something for them.
The movie makes no obvious attempt to understand why these men have devoted their lives to bodybuilding, but its midsection does attend to some of the lifestyle’s costs. Maxim’s wife gingerly addresses his “moods and stress”; the garage selfie-taker admits he has little time to spend with his infant son between trips to the gym. (We also see him cook a meal for his family, then stand alone in the kitchen and gobble a whole steak before joining them at the table for noodles.)
We don’t quite follow these men out into competition, but the film tracks right up to that point, observing some of the rituals (the primping and bronzing, the standing in front of fans to let bronzer dry) that precede those pageants. At home and the gym, we watch as poses are practiced and men attempt the difficult feat of smiling as they flex with all their might.
Lastly, Cote brings all six men out to a country house, presumably for no other reason than to tie the film together. (Some seem to know each other already; some don’t.) Shirtless, they paddle across a pond and sun themselves in a meadow. They strike poses for each other and strum guitar by a bonfire. Steering clear of whatever small talk they might’ve made with each other, the director focuses on tableaux that might serve as the setup for a goofy, pastoral porn film. Instead, he puts these men to sleep alone in their own rooms, shutting the door on them gently so they can awake refreshed and gleaming in the daylight.
Production company: Art & Essai
Distributor: Breaking Glass Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Denis Cote
Producers: Joelle Bertossa, Denis Cote, Jeanne-Marie Poulain, Dounia Sichov
Director of photography: Francois Messier-Rheault
Editor: Nicolas Roy
In French and English