When was the last time you marveled at the mysterious, majestic human body on screen? Not in a sexual way — in a biological one; the kind of gawking stemming from awe and admiration rather than jealousy.
In his new documentary A Skin So Soft, Quebecois filmmaker Denis Côté (Bestiaire) locates something awesome in fixing his camera on contemporary bodybuilders. In the closing credits, he tips his hand a bit with the spirit he’s attempting to channel: the cinema of attractions. Before narrative entered the moving image, there was simply the spectacle of the human body in motion. It served as a sideshow to live entertainments such as vaudeville, but these early cave scribblings of cinema inspired viewers to look at something so banal as the human body with wonderment. (Granted, the viewing mechanisms for this primitive film were private as opposed to communal, so perhaps the Victorian-era audience did get a bit of a sexual kick out of it after all.)
Côté’s camera treats his subjects in the way they treat themselves: as specimens. They are humans, yes, but they are also sculptures of muscle. No one in A Skin So Soft would dare be bashful about their imposing stature in the way the jacked-up Hollywood cover boys now must be. If standards of idyllic male beauty involve that six-packs look effortless, these men want their bulging biceps to look downright effortful. In a process-oriented approach, Côté details their obsession from weighing every ingredient of their food to the exacting photoshoots to redeem their ascetic lifestyle. One director’s B-roll is another’s mother lode.
Like the cinema of attractions, A Skin So Soft relies on the body as the primary method of communication. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, Côté finds the ideal way to make viewers instantly aware of the virtues these men hope to extol through their hardbodies. It is the ultimate mastery over one thing we cannot control — the bodies into which we are born. The documentary is less personal profile and more like touring a science museum as Côté examines the ways in which the human body can be molded and shaped by the sheer force of obsession and control.
The documentary seldom features dialogue, but classifying it as a silent film does not do the experience justice. The grunts and exhalations of the subjects as they go through their routine form their own language. Côté understands that these noises have meaning beyond their sonic frequency, too — these are their equivalent of words. If pressed, I feel confident he could produce a subtitle track for every huff and puff that emanated from their mouths.
A Skin So Soft unfolds primarily as a series of individual, intertwined vignettes, presenting each man in isolation. But as the film draws to a close (and perhaps begins to overstay its welcome), Côté films his subjects altogether, and one begins to see that this language is a shared one. There’s an odd fraternity in their grease rubdowns and muscle worship. Côté shows no desire to demystify this exhibition. He simply films these gargantuan colossi, inviting us to gaze once again at the majesty of the human flesh — and know we’re doing so.
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