Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Weighty matters and bizarre male bonding in Denis Côté's documentary, A SKIN SO SOFT

The first thing we see is a hugely muscular man with a very long beard (two photos below). Wow: Rip van Winkle meets Mr. Universe. Then we watch a much younger, clean-shaven man (shown at bottom) having a meal, followed by some body building. Next, a woman's voice announces, Cedric: It's 9AM!, as another resplendent body, full of tattoos and piercings (on poster, right) awakens and rises. Then we move to an Asian-Canadian hunk (shown fourth photo from bottom), who doubles as husband and father and seems like a particularly loving dad. All possess uber-muscular bodies beautiful -- if, that is, you're an aficionado of the culture of body building.

The filmmaker here is that unique French Canadian (via New Brunswick), Denis Côté (shown at left), who has gifted film lovers with a number of oddball and very interesting -- often nearly non-classifiable -- movies. (You can read my post on NYC's Anthology Film Archives' 2012 retrospective of Côté's work by clicking here.)

Oh, his movies are either documentary or narratives, all right, but within those realms, of course, anything is possible. And that's what Côté usually offers. You are likely to finish one (or more) of his films with the same question hanging in front of you: What did I just see?

Expect no easy, one-word answer. Though I would say that you will have probably seen something human -- and humane. Unless the filmmaker is dealing with animals. Then you'll have likely experienced a film that has you somehow looking out through the animals' eyes.

Côté's latest film to reach our shores is A SKIN SO SOFT (Ta peau si lisse), the title of which already causes questions, since lisse translates as smooth, rather than soft), and considering the nearly completely shaven and exfoliated bodies these guys possess (facial hair is evidently OK, however), smooth is definitely the better adjective.

Although we meet and spend some time with maybe a dozen different would-be champions during the course of this 93-minute documentary, there are really just six important men here (we do glimpse a woman body-builder, too, but just briefly). God forbid that we should be given anything remotely like exposition, however. No: The filmmaker just plops us down into their lives willy-nilly and lets us find our own way.

Dialog is kept to a minimum, and what there is does not even advance our understanding much. Instead, and as usual, it's the visuals that keep us alert and interested. Like the big bruiser, two photos up, who suddenly and quite literally seems to be pulling a two-ton truck. Later, we see the same guy (at least, I think it was he) fast asleep with a great big dog lying in his lap. So dear! And then suddenly he's wrestling -- not body-building -- in a scene that makes Canadian wrestling look even dumber and more phony than the American variety.

We imagine that these men are in training for some competition, and during the film's final third, we do see, briefly, a competition. We also imagine that perhaps these guys do not know each other and are are not connected in any way. And then M. Côté delivers his pièce de résistance -- again, with no exposition, little dialog and just those visuals, this time in a gloriously verdant outdoor setting.

Anyone demanding a connect-the-dots experience had better avoid A Skin So Soft. We could certainly have gotten to know these guys a hell of a lot better via more conventional movie-making means. But for those willing to take a chance, and perhaps get to know body-building culture from what you might call the inside-out, the movie may turn out to be -- in its bizarre and very nearly fuck you, viewer! manner -- something almost memorable.

From Breaking Glass Pictures, the documentary opens this Friday, July 6, in New York City for a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives. It has played L.A. already and is available now for purchase or rental via Amazon VOD. Breaking Glass also promises that a DVD will be forthcoming soon. 

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