The English title for “A Skin So Soft” makes Denis Côté’s docu-hybrid sound like an ad for Avon’s bath oil/bug repellent, which is a shame since “soft” isn’t the word that comes to mind when looking at the over-pumped muscles of the Canadian bodybuilders featured here. The French title, which translates as “your skin so smooth,” makes more sense, especially given a scene in which Jean-François Bouchard appears to be undergoing a painful depilation. Smooth, bulging, oiled, tatted, exposed: 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 dichotomy (or is it a paradox?); true to his admirably eclectic approach, the maverick director weaves together portraits of six bodybuilders that push to the margins personal details and grand statements about the sport. More like a true portrait painter, he focuses on the surface of things knowing that, when images are well chosen and the presentation is right, skin can offer a wealth of details. Ever the cinema theorist, he uses the medium in a demonstrably visual rather than didactic way, and while similar to his earlier docu-fictions (“Carcasses,” “Bestiaire”), “Skin” is a more openly accepting film, in which curiosity takes the place of polemic.
Forget the grandstanding of the “Pumping Iron” franchise: 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 employs 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. Take Cédric Doyon for example, seen chowing down on breakfast like a bulldog. The camera hovers by his face as he breathes heavily through his nose and chews, his facial muscles straining, and then he starts to cry. He’s watching something on his computer, which we don’t see or hear, and it’s unclear if the scene is staged or not, but it makes him both more like a strange hybrid creature and at the same time more human than expected.
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At times it’s almost as if the muscles are separate from the men themselves. When Ronald Yang is first seen, he’s shirtless in an automatic massaging chair; as his pectoral muscles involuntarily twitch, they practically mimic the odd movements of the bulging pleather pushed out by the massage mechanism. Yet even though the muscles are objectified — which after all is the bodybuilders’ goal — the men themselves are not. Benoit Lapierre no longer competes, but works as a trainer and New Age coach. Maxim Lemire does strength training and cartoonish demonstrations of manliness such as pulling a six-wheeler with his body. Alexis Légaré is the youngest of the group, finding it difficult to motivate his girlfriend with her workout routines. Yang and Lemire have kids, while the black-bearded Bouchard seems the most introverted and alone of the group, though his self-awareness and humor nicely come through thanks to a conversation with a photographer.
The film’s biggest fascination lies in the duality of man and muscle: it’s hard not to make animalistic comparisons when talking about their looks and behavior. After all, preening is a characteristic often associated with male birds and lizards, while the rippling of muscle, the way it moves under taut skin, inevitably conjures up images of four-legged creatures, except here the exaggerated pecs and triceps, abs and glutes are anything but natural. Nonetheless, 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.
On the docu-fiction spectrum, “Skin” sits comfortably on the docu side of things. There’s an amusing scene in a locker room, surely staged, where Doyon is begrudgingly admired by a fellow bodybuilder who silently glares at him in an alpha male kind of way. At the end, the group all come together for an overnight in the countryside, clearly organized for the purposes of the film as a sort of thank-you gift to his subjects for allowing him to insert himself into their spaces. Otherwise, unlike “Carcasses,” there’s no fictional overlay. François Messier-Rheault’s camera can get very close to its subjects, captivated by texture and shape that balances nicely with diverting, though never mocking, compositions.