• [The Daily] Locarno 2017: Denis Côte’s A Skin So Soft

    By David Hudson

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    “Two gloriously muscled bodybuilders eye each other with distrust, envy and contempt at the gym in Denis Côte’s A Soft the Skin.” That’s one of the moments from the first days of this year’s Locarno Festival that has stuck with Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Premiering in the international competition, this documentary essay of male skin stretched to its max over bodies of outrageous bulk discreetly steps around the personal motivations of its hulking men in favor of glimpses of their somewhat introverted, secretive auras, as if what brought them each this this point of extreme strength and absurd body mass was of deeply private concern.”

    “The subjects of Côté’s fascination with this extreme form of self-creation project a hyper-charged masculinity that’s undercut by rituals traditionally associated with femininity, from make-up and bronzers to the whole act of displaying one’s body for admiration,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety. “Côté doesn’t emphasize this dichotomy (or is it a paradox?); true to his admirably eclectic approach, the maverick director weaves together portraits of six bodybuilders that push to the margins personal details and grand statements about the sport. More like a true portrait painter, he focuses on the surface of things knowing that, when images are well chosen and the presentation is right, skin can offer a wealth of details. Ever the cinema theorist, he uses the medium in a demonstrably visual rather than didactic way, and while similar to his earlier docu-fictions (Carcasses, Bestiaire), Skin is a more openly accepting film, in which curiosity takes the place of polemic.”

    The Upcoming’s Joseph Owen particularly likes the sequence in which “they finally head off to a woodland retreat together. It is a sweet, hilariously homoerotic encounter, all peacock displays of muscle definition combined with envious and admiring glances at one another’s physique. Watching these bumbling leviathans chase sheep across a field is a moment of unique joy.”

    “Côté employs a methodical reticence that often leaves the viewer guessing as to the significance of the images we are seeing,” finds John Bleasdale at CineVue. “And which also has the result of undermining any empathy we might feel.”

    But for Muriel Del Don, this is “a courageous film that situates statuesque figures somewhere between suffering and ecstasy, the perfect being and the ultimate monstrosity.” And she interviews Côté for Cineuropa: “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.”

    Irina Trocan reports in the press conference for the festival.

    Update, 8/8: Côté’s work might “be organized into two distinct types: narrative dramas that focus on human relationships under duress and hyper-real, video installation-styled documentaries (Bestaire, Joy of Man’s Desiring).” For Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, what’s “troublesome” about this new film “is that instead of taking the familiar and subverting it—as in his previous documentaries—A Skin So Soft takes an already alien world and dehumanizes it further. However, if audiences can forgive that—and that might be a big ask for some, not to mention a little unsympathetic—then Côté’s film does work very well for the most part as a somewhat cold, ornamental study of what our epidermal tissue looks like at terminal mass.”

    Update, 8/9: “For while at least,” writes James Lattimer at the House Next Door, “there's a nagging feeling that the virtues of Côté's film lie more in what it doesn't do than what it does, as all the muted observation doesn't initially appear to be leading anywhere in particular. But the film's closing stages quickly dispel this impression, when the six protagonists head off together on a rural retreat . . . A new mood is established that hovers somewhere between the utopian, the mildly homoerotic, and the mysterious, at which point it becomes clear just how much Côté is actually directing things, a realization that suddenly also applies to everything that's come before this point. Is A Skin So Soft thus a portrait of ‘real life’ as a bodybuilder or a subtly idealized version of the same? The answer lies at some indeterminate point in between.”

    Update, 8/17: “So far,” Côté tells Jeremy Elphick at 4:3, “people are asking me, every minute of the film, they want to know what’s real and what’s not real. They want to know, ‘What is the context of that scene where he’s crying?’ And so, the film stays mysterious. So far, the reactions are good. People don’t see how it was really made, and they don’t know in which box to put the film. It’s a compliment for me.”

    Update, 9/2: “I would write a full page on an Abbas Kiarostami retrospective and then two or three lines on Spiderman. That is how I made my reputation as a film critic,” Côté tells Hossein Eidizadeh at Kinoscope. “In 2005, I made my first film, Drifting States. I really didn’t know what I was making. When it was finished, I watched it with my editor and we thought, ‘Is it a fiction, is it a documentary, what is it?’ It was really exciting! Then I heard that Locarno Film Festival was interested in the film. I was like, ‘What is Locarno?’ We sent the film and won the main award in the video competition. That was the beginning of my career. After that I made a film every year.”

    Update, 9/3: Adam Nayman introduces his interview with Côté for Cinema Scope: “As to how to read Ta peau si lisse—i.e., whether or not it is specifically a film about ‘masculinity,’ as some early reviews out of Locarno suggested, or maybe a transplanted allegory about the discipline and vanity of any creative endeavour—it’s probably best to tread lightly. What makes Côté’s films, this one included, so valuable is that they’re wide open to interpretation without necessarily requiring the viewer to ‘complete’ them (a condition often set by more high-minded/-handed ephemera). . . . Côté’s willingness to follow his instincts past clearly delineated boundaries has always been the source of his heavyweight strength. With Ta peau si lisse, he’s in fighting shape.”

    Updates, 9/8: “In the closing credits,” writes Marshall Shaffer for Vague Visages, Côté “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.”

    “The film shares a kind of complicity with another excellent movie with a similar theme,” suggests Aldo Padilla at desistfilm: “Mister Universo by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, a film where the body was interpreted as a testimony, a kind of book written and a photograph that is retained in the mind. In both cases, there is an obsession concealed by the forms, in the case of the Canadian film the obsession tends to be individual and in the case of Covi and Frimmel the obsession is alien: the body as object of desire, far from sexuality and more close to contemplation.”

    Update, 9/10: “This is probably the ideal film about the male body,” writes Michael Sicinski. “Like it or not, this is what peak documentary performance looks like. I didn't like it, though. . . . I saw a bodybuilding documentary as a part of the Wavelengths section of TIFF, and it didn't feel so different from an ESPN 30 For 30 production, is what I'm saying.”

    Update, 9/16: For Tina Hassannia at RogerEbert.com, Skin “suggests that, as much as it is a documentary exploring a particular subculture, the hypermasculine ideals that bodybuilding espouses and turns material in the bulking muscles of its practitioners do form from some degree of emotional vulnerability, a history of inferiority, the person needing to compete against someone or something. These are the subtle vibes I picked up while watching one of the bodybuilders listen to a music video through headphones on his laptop as he shovelled food into his mouth, almost angrily. It’s not so much anger, I realized, watching him watching his laptop so intently, as anxiety. And then a tear rolls down his face. There’s a lot going on here.”

    Update, 9/21: “Côté builds a vivid, wryly amusing, and increasingly peculiar portrait of this dedicated act of self-sculpture,” writes Matt Turner in the Brooklyn Rail. “His aesthetic approach intensifies the quotidian scenarios being observed, unsettling the ordinary through precise, rigorous cinematography and heightened sound design.”

    Update, 9/24: “The filmmaking is undeniably accomplished,” grants Lawrence Garcia in In Review Online, “but it’s also oddly unmotivated—an ‘exercise’ in the most basic sense of the term. Even that designation, though, is not without its own sort of resonance: The film’s lingering impression is of Herculean effort expended on a task that may look utterly pointless to an outsider.”

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