Canadian director Denis Côté glides effortlessly between narrative and documentary filmmaking, maintaining his minimalist approach to storytelling regardless of whether he’s dealing with fact or fiction. His latest documentary, A Skin So Soft (Ta Peau Si Lisse), tells you everything you need to know about its subjects without ever interviewing them, or delving in deeper to their personal lives – instead, we learn everything about the six bodybuilders via their intense training regimes and their diets. The minimalistic style of the documentary means we spend the bulk of the running time following their daily schedules as they prepare themselves for competitions, and Côté uses this verite style footage to make us question the nature of the extreme masculinity on display when presented in its most mundane form.
Côté embraces the juxtaposition between the stereotypical machismo of his subjects, and the stereotypically “feminine” nature of their obsessions with presenting a perfect body image. Sure, we do follow one of the subjects as he is cheered on by a crowd as he drags a truck using his body mass – but we also see the men have their body hairs removed, get tanned for competitions and having their physically competitive attributes observed by various other men, as they stand there passively, close to being naked. When women do enter the picture, they are given the stereotypical “masculine” role of reinforcing positive opinions on the men’s looks.
Which isn’t to say that the film is mean spirited in its exploration of the bodybuilding world. I did get the sense that Côté was genuinely fascinated with them, and the world they inhabit in which hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism live perennially side by side. However, this may not be easily detectable to some viewers; due to the stripped down, exposition free nature of the filmmaking, we are never formally introduced to the subjects by name – reducing them to being mere bodies, who we have to judge on their physical attributes in the same way the judges at their contests do. This is an intentional filmmaking decision, I’d argue, but the director clearly has a deeper interest in this cast of characters beyond their physical form. The film’s final stage gets the disparate group members together at last, for a quaint team building exercise that feels hilariously quaint compared to the intensity of their daily routines depicted before.
In these moments, we get to see them as fully rounded human beings, something that the ritualistic nature of their daily lives doesn’t really capture onscreen. There are glimpses here and there of a life outside of competitive bodybuilding, mostly when following Ronald Yang and his home family life, but mostly we are observing the stresses they are putting their bodies through in order to present themselves as the most extreme examples of a masculine ideal.
There’s nothing of the humour of a documentary like cult 70’s classic Pumping Iron (which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name) in A Skin So Soft (Ta Peau Si Lisse), but there is plenty of food for thought. Millions of people worry about trying to get the perfect body – Côté’s film goes one step further to ask how far you would go to not just obtain it, but maintain it in the most image conscious environment imaginable.