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The strongman has long been a popular subject of cinema. Photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge made hundreds of motion picture studies of nude people performing various feats, musclemen prominent among them. This is a natural continuation of the fascination with the idealized male form that has persisted through all of art history, going back through thousands of years of painting and sculpture. We see it today in fetishistic advertising and worshipful depictions of superheroes and action stars in movies.
A Skin So Soft (originally in French, Te peau si lisse) is not quite in line with all these other works, even though it is about male bodybuilders, whom you would naturally think of as the living embodiments of this physical ideal. Quebecois director Denis Côté instead dismantles the very concept of “perfection,” showing just what his subjects undergo to achieve it.
Côté follows six Canadian bodybuilders, of varying ages, ethnicities, and levels of mass, in the lead-up to a local competition. This is not a sports movie, however. It cares not who wins or loses, and footage of the men onstage is minimal. Instead it fixates on their everyday routines — and not just their exercise, practice, and diet regimens, but also their time with their families and friends, or simply going about mundane errands. A good portion of the film is nothing but guys being dudes, except they also happen to be huge.
Alexis Légaré tries (and mostly fails) to get his girlfriend to embark on her own disciplined exercise routine. Ronald Yang cares for his kids and other members of his sizable family. Benoit Lapierre, retired from competing and now a life coach, espouses New-Agey platitudes to his disciple. Removed from the context of a stage and competition, these enormous men cut quite different figures. The movie could easily mock them, but Côté takes care to show them in an empathetic light, striking a balance between humanizing them while also scrutinizing the moments in which they purposefully attempt to transcend their humanity in the pursuit of physical perfection. The film is at its most riveting when it finds the places where they become all too human in their quest for inhuman form, such as a nail-biting hair removal scene.
Bodybuilders have made for distinct documentary characters before, most notably in 1977’s Pumping Iron, which features a pre-fame Arnold Schwarzenegger giving an astonishingly frank interview about the sexual rush he gets from weightlifting. A Skin So Soft shares little with that earlier film besides subject matter, but it also observes the subconscious link between virility and bodybuilding, though in a much more circumspect manner.
At every turn, the film is formally at odds with its ultra-powerful cast. It is quiet and observational, often staying at a distance from its subjects and emphasizing stillness in its compositions. The camera goes in close when they hit the weights, emphasizing bulging veins, beads of sweat, grunts, flushed skin, and tensing muscles. It is deeply sexual in a non-prurient way; when juxtaposed with the overwhelming normalcy of the rest of the men’s lives, the herculean exercises are but another routine. Schwarzenegger compares pumping to masturbation, and this film makes it seem just as normal — quite a feat, since that requires forgetting that these guys can lift hundreds of pounds as if they’re nothing.
Côté comes from an avant-garde background, having made films about humans and animals observing each other (Bestiare) or people finding car parts at a chop shop (Carcasses). A Skin So Soft is more accessible though still highly idiosyncratic, straightforward in form but surreal in its images of men who look like ‘roided-out Greek statues carrying groceries or crying at YouTube videos. It’s a mesmerizing new form of Muybridge’s motion studies, and an unforgettable watch.
A Skin So Soft opens in select theaters June 15 and will be available on DVD and VOD June 19.