The pleasure of Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft radiates not so much from its storytelling as it does from the meditative force of its formal construction. Surveying the muscular bodies and quotidian lives of six male Canadian bodybuilders through an arrangement of often wordless passages, Côté’s camera relishes the silence of daily moments when these physically hardened men put down their weights and become fundamentally human.
The conventional components of documentaries and narrative features centered around sports—from the imposing, egoistic personalities of star athletes, to fiercely contested concluding competitions—are absent here. Unlike Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Faster, Stronger*, A Skin So Soft isn’t a Spurlockian exposé on how corporations manufacture body image as a product. Rather, Côté gleans details about his subjects from snatches of their lives, then finds poetry in them. In one shot, just enough sunlight pours through an open patio door to reveal a small fortune of trophies arranged neatly on a nearby table. Outside, one of the documentary’s bodybuilders, Cédric Doyon, smokes a cigarette, then has his mother critique the finer points of his poses. Without relying on talking heads or exposition, the film arrives at a mysterious assessment of its subjects’ lives, never settling into a reductive conception of what it means to painstakingly devote oneself to bodybuilding.
Côté’s direction feels nearly philosophical in its deconstruction of on-screen action as the film’s first half cycles through moments from the daily routines of each of its subjects. Jean-François Bouchard combs his long goatee and applies lotion to his skin, an immediate allusion to the film’s title and, in contrast to the man’s significant muscle definition, a thematic declaration by Côté, who consistently seeks to challenge the stereotypical displays of masculinity and meat-headed belligerence that weightlifters are prone to.
Given that sports companies and many sports-themed films thrive on trite motivational phrases regarding, among other things, willpower and endurance, A Skin So Soft is unique as a counterpoint to a corporate-backed image of athletics. The only time that the aphoristic rhetoric of advertising is spoken in the documentary is when one subject offers advice to another. Even then, the filmmaking points our attention to small bits of business that counter an acceptance of the words at face value. At one point, Alexis Légaré, the youngest of the film’s subjects, tries to convince his girlfriend to take up weightlifting, but she doubts that she can afford the time. As her reticence revs Alexis into a heretofore unseen role as a motivational speaker, Côté initially keeps the camera trained on her hands, which fidget with a pair of Alexis’s hand grips. The eventual pan to Alexis’s face is thus akin to a punchline, revealing a man illogically frustrated by his partner’s unwillingness to adopt a demeanor that precisely matches his own. The film increasingly feels like a blank-faced comedy in such moments, dryly showing how Alexis’s obsession blinds him to the self-aggrandizing nature of his speech.
That the film aims to see beyond the gym floor and the oiled-up skins of its subjects doesn’t mean the result is a pendulum swing toward these men being flatly sensitive either. Côté glimpses Ronald Yang as a man who lifts weights and spends time with his extended family. Maxim Lemire pulls a truck across a parking lot and playfully bickers with his wife and daughter one morning about why he’s in a “grumpy” mood. Benoit Lapierre is a conscientious physical therapist by day and bodybuilder by night. By not settling on a simplistic conception of how bodily exertion might neatly comingle with familial devotion, A Skin So Soft is an object lesson on how dispensing with the template of the expository documentary can help filmmakers see past the most explicit attributes of their subjects.