Denis Côté • Director
"If I steer clear of interviews, informative content and statistics, what's left? Bodies"
- LOCARNO 2017: Cineuropa met up with Denis Côté, the director of A Skin So Soft, a feature brimming with elegance and humanity that has just been presented in Locarno's International Competition
At the Locarno Film Festival, Cineuropa chatted to Canadian director Denis Côté, who talked to us about his latest film, the surprising and aesthetically powerful A Skin So Soft [+see also:
interview: Denis Côté
film profile], which he is presenting in the International Competition. Côté is a "regular" at Locarno: this year, he is back for the fourth time, following Drifting States (Golden Leopard in the Video Competition in 2005), All That She Wants (Best Director Award in 2008) and Curling (another Best Director Award plus a Leopard for Best Actor in 2010). A Skin So Soft talks about the fragility of human bodies, be they worshipped, glorified or bruised.
Cineuropa: Why did you decide to film the world of bodybuilding?
Denis Côté: For a long time, I had wanted to make a documentary about one of the protagonists, Benoit, but he didn’t really want to lift the lid on everything in his private life. So then the project just stayed inside my head. 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. I became interested in them again, looking at all the awe-inspiring photos they posted on their Facebook profiles. I interviewed several of them, then I finalised the cast.
Your film is very powerful but extremely human at the same time, going far beyond the clichés linked to bodybuilding. How did you manage to "protect" your characters, without falling into the trap of voyeurism?
First of all, I watched the classic Pumping Iron, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I told myself that we had seen all there was to see about bodybuilding. Then there are those countless TV reports and other highly conventional documentaries revolving around diets, drugs and all those hours of training. I thought the ‘subject’ had been filmed quite enough using a head-on approach. I decided to skirt around the edges, even if it meant occasionally drifting towards the extreme fringes. Besides the fitness centres, we see ordinary guys with families, some less glamorous moments, and private and intimate scenes that the other films on the ‘subject’ do not concern themselves with. The idea of impressionism has caught on, and it was the fragility of these giants that really guided my perspective. But the lads still didn’t understand what I was looking for. They wanted to glisten and explode onto the screen to a thundering soundtrack, but all I was asking them to do was the washing-up. In the end, they were happy to show us another face. They thought it was ‘different’. I filmed people with passions, not their feats and achievements. You can really feel the tender and human angle, because it’s a film about human beings with passions, rather than a movie about bodybuilding.
In A Skin So Soft, the dialogue is scarce, and there is a complete lack of music and voice-overs. In contrast, “human” sounds are very prominent, almost magnified. What was the thinking behind this?
That comes down to the need to film what we see less of in the other films centring on this world. If I steer clear of interviews, informative content and statistics, what’s left? Bodies – bodies suffering, bodies that are satisfied, at rest or in a state of quasi-euphoria. I hunted down the slightest physical expression but also the slightest hint of anxiety. They are always on show, always performing, and they are very much aware of their image. Sometimes it’s the camera bothering them, at others it’s the sheer emotion of achieving their goals. I had no screenplay to work with, so I sought out these tell-tale signs of vulnerability.
The bodies that you depict are supremely perfect, statuesque but simultaneously very sensual. Were you aiming to upend the established roles surrounding relationships of seduction by shattering the stereotypes linked to the insensitive, chauvinistic muscle man?
Right from my first few visits to the fitness centres, or whenever I saw a competition, I noticed that there was absolutely no sex appeal, nor any so-called ‘normal’ games of seduction. It’s a world that is sexualised very little, even though everyone is constantly half-naked. It’s all about pure performance. The men and women never look at one another in a lustful way. They check each other out, but only from a performance point of view, with perhaps a smattering of jealousy. They examine one another from head to toe, all the while silently giving marks out of ten. It’s a far cry from sexualising the relationships, and that took me by surprise. To the casual observer, it therefore becomes quite astonishing to see all of this homoerotic electricity go utterly unnoticed among the bodybuilding enthusiasts. The most awe-inspiring bodybuilders are not extremely macho. They don’t talk about sex; they don’t hit on people. That may seem strange, but in the end, it’s logical. There’s nothing but them and the struggle with themselves.
(Translated from French)
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