• [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.”

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