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Denis Côté’s New Film: “A Skin So Soft” at Locarno

Friday, August 4th, 2017

A Skin So Soft: “there’s nothing but them and the struggle with themselves.”

Denis Côté continues to consolidate his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers working today with his new film A Skin So Soft. The film recently premiered at The Locarno Film Festival, and won rave reviews from every quarter, which if you ask me is about time – he’s an absolute original. My sincere thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster – one of the most perceptive viewers of Côté‘s work –  for bringing this to my attention.

With such films as Drifting States (Golden Leopard in the Locarno Video Competition in 2005), All That She Wants (Best Director Award at Locarno in 2008) and Curling (another Best Director Award plus a Leopard for Best Actor in 2010), Côté is clearly a major talent, and yet his films are often misunderstood by mainstream critics. They also, of course, need to get much more distribution, but that’s true of so many thoughtful films in 2017.

Here’s an interview with Côté by Muriel Del Don from the journal Cineuropa, in which he talks about the genesis of the film, what it is and what it is not, and how he approached the material in way that’s absolutely different from films that dealt with body building in the past.

Cineuropa: Why did you decide to film the world of bodybuilding?

Denis Côté: For a long time, I had wanted to make a documentary about one of the protagonists, Benoit, but he didn’t really want to lift the lid on everything in his private life. So then the project just stayed inside my head. I have a number of health problems, and observing these men in their pursuit of perfection seemed to be a way of striking up a conversation with my own ailing body, in a very real way. I became interested in them again, looking at all the awe-inspiring photos they posted on their Facebook profiles. I interviewed several of them, then I finalized the cast.

Cineuropa: Your film is very powerful but extremely human at the same time, going far beyond the clichés linked to bodybuilding. How did you manage to “protect” your characters, without falling into the trap of voyeurism?

Denis Côté: First of all, I watched the classic Pumping Iron, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I told myself that we had seen all there was to see about bodybuilding. Then there are those countless TV reports and other highly conventional documentaries revolving around diets, drugs and all those hours of training. I thought the ‘subject’ had been filmed quite enough using a head-on approach. I decided to skirt around the edges, even if it meant occasionally drifting towards the extreme fringes. Besides the fitness centers, we see ordinary guys with families, some less glamorous moments, and private and intimate scenes that the other films on the ‘subject’ do not concern themselves with.

The idea of impressionism has caught on, and it was the fragility of these giants that really guided my perspective. But the lads still didn’t understand what I was looking for. They wanted to glisten and explode onto the screen to a thundering soundtrack, but all I was asking them to do was the washing-up. In the end, they were happy to show us another face. They thought it was ‘different’. I filmed people with passions, not their feats and achievements. You can really feel the tender and human angle, because it’s a film about human beings with passions, rather than a movie about bodybuilding.

Cineuropa: In A Skin So Soft, the dialogue is scarce, and there is a complete lack of music and voice-overs. In contrast, “human” sounds are very prominent, almost magnified. What was the thinking behind this?

Denis Côté: That comes down to the need to film what we see less of in the other films centering on this world. If I steer clear of interviews, informative content and statistics, what’s left? Bodies – bodies suffering, bodies that are satisfied, at rest or in a state of quasi-euphoria. I hunted down the slightest physical expression but also the slightest hint of anxiety. They are always on show, always performing, and they are very much aware of their image. Sometimes it’s the camera bothering them, at others it’s the sheer emotion of achieving their goals. I had no screenplay to work with, so I sought out these tell-tale signs of vulnerability.

Cineuropa: The bodies that you depict are supremely perfect, statuesque but simultaneously very sensual. Were you aiming to upend the established roles surrounding relationships of seduction by shattering the stereotypes linked to the insensitive, chauvinistic muscle man?

Denis Côté: Right from my first few visits to the fitness centres, or whenever I saw a competition, I noticed that there was absolutely no sex appeal, nor any so-called ‘normal’ games of seduction. It’s a world that is sexualized very little, even though everyone is constantly half-naked. It’s all about pure performance. The men and women never look at one another in a lustful way. They check each other out, but only from a performance point of view, with perhaps a smattering of jealousy.

They examine one another from head to toe, all the while silently giving marks out of ten. It’s a far cry from sexualizing the relationships, and that took me by surprise. To the casual observer, it therefore becomes quite astonishing to see all of this homoerotic electricity go utterly unnoticed among the bodybuilding enthusiasts. The most awe-inspiring bodybuilders are not extremely macho. They don’t talk about sex; they don’t hit on people. That may seem strange, but in the end, it’s logical. There’s nothing but them and the struggle with themselves.

See the trailer here – I’ll have more to say on this remarkable film in the future.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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