Though ultimately a hollow documentary, Denis Cote’s A Skin So Soft is nonetheless hypnotising in its observation of six Canadian bodybuilders. Gradually introduced (though never to the point of familiarity) over the course of its 90 minute running time, initially we are subjected to their daily routines, ranging from the mundane (eating, brushing their teeth, moisturising) to the extreme (one of the subjects hoists a harness around his chest and pulls a semi-trailer across a parking lot), all in their respective lead-ups to a presumed competition.
There’s an objectification to the way Cote frames these men – their over-sized bodies mostly half-naked for the duration – but it’s obvious he wants to humanise them too, looking at both their strengths and weaknesses in a physical and mental capacity; one of the men, Jean-Francois Bouchard, explains to a photographer that he doesn’t like to smile when posing on stage as the white of his teeth is too much of a stark contrast to the darkness of his near-chest-length beard, whilst another, Alex Legare (the film’s youngest participant), finds it difficult to separate his duties as both a coach and partner to his girlfriend who’s struggling to be as motivated when it comes to her own training.
There’s a quietness to each of the men involved here that suggests perhaps it was their own introverted nature that set them on the path towards bodybuilding as it gave them a sense of structure and purpose, but the voidness of any one-on-one interviews sees the film unable to provide a detailed background on them, and therefore it keeps the audience at a distance throughout the entire film.
This tactic proves a disservice as there’s interest and intrigue abounding beneath the surface, most specifically with Benoit Lapierre and Cedric Doyon. Lapierre, a former bodybuilder-turned-life coach, provides the audience with the best insight into how these athletes can achieve their goals through his own criticism of their posing stances, whilst Doyon, arguably A Skin So Soft‘s most enigmatic subject, reveals an unexpected tenderness in his introduction moment, quietly crying as he watches a video whilst eating breakfast. What exactly has brought him to tears is never revealed, and it would seem Cote’s insistence on keeping Doyon something of an ambiguous character is deliberate as another moment evokes the questioning of his sexual orientation; he eyes off a fellow male gym member during a workout session, with the gaze between the two lingering in the locker room suggesting they’re cruising one another, though it’s more likely they’re merely sizing up each other’s physique as competition or inspiration.
The final 20 minutes of the film sees all six men (Ronald Yang, an Asian family man who believes he has perfected his chest but not his back, and Maxim Lemire, a strongman and wrestler, make up the sextet) come together for an extended camping trip in the country. No explanation is given as to how they all know each other or what the reasoning for the trip is, but it does give the film a sense of heart as these closing moments allow each of the men a moment to breathe, unwind and completely relax. It’s a shame though that in showcasing them at their most unwound, we as viewers only feel more anxious and unfulfilled as the documentary closes without ever allowing us an opportunity to know who these complex men are.
About A Skin So Soft
Jean-François, Ronald, Alexis, Cédric, Benoit, and Maxim are gladiators of modern times. From the strongman to the top-class bodybuilder, to the veteran who has become a trainer, they all share the same definition and obsession with overcoming their limitations. They are waiting for the next competition, working hard in the gym and following extreme diets.
A Skin So Soft (15+) is screening as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival, running from 11th – 21st October 2018.