Health Hazard and Sculpture Subgenre
In introducing his new film premiering in Locarno, Denis Côté summarized his approach: “I am a film person, not a subject person.” Ta Peau si lisse can be described as a documentary following six body-builders, except that many scenes did not spontaneously happen in front of the camera. Much of it is reenacted based on what they told him in interviews. Rather than trying to be informative in a trivia-packed kind of way, he aimed to craft a gentle film, to catch their routine beyond the gym training hours.
Côté initially intended to make a film about one of the six subjects, Benoit, but couldn’t, and got interested in his peers while browsing through Benoit’s Facebook account. He decided to cast in his documentary other bodybuilders whom he found engaging: “A lot of these guys aren’t very interesting,” the director claimed. Ronald Yang, the one actor/subject present at the press conference, nodded approvingly. Posing to show off their muscles is a frequent activity, but they have enough screen time to reveal their personalities in a more humane way, through gestures like smiling (no small feat, for a tough bearded individual) and laying out their views to (or in front of) the camera.
While watching the film, it’s not immediately apparent how much of what happened in front of the camera would have also happened in its absence: the slowly unfolding shots give the sensation of observational documentary, but this is usually misleading. The press conference became a guessing game about what is and isn’t staged. One scene, with Yang trying to do a wide-enough selfie of his body by fixing the phone to the ceiling with adhesive tape, is inspired by reality (in the sense that bodybuilders do have a cult for taking photos of themselves) but actually fiction. A dialogue between a female bodybuilder and her boyfriend and trainer about how these two roles collide is also acted out, even though it is based on a real couple dilemma – being supportive of her and being demanding are at odds with each other. Even the ending is entirely the creation of the director, who wanted a more unitary and lyrical conclusion to the stories he documented.
Even when Côté's role was to chart out their life based on what he gathered from interviews, sometimes he couldn’t be too methodical: “It was staged, but there were some surprises!” One of the bodybuilders, whose larger-than-life physique still seems striking when he is seated in front of his laptop, told the director that he often cries, thinking of how bad his life was in the past and how much bodybuilding helped him improve it. He later obligingly cried in front of the camera, in one of the most unexpected moments of the film.
Côté and Yang used “sculpture” and “art” to describe what bodybuilders do, the former admitting that it took him some time to agree that these notions apply. In the end, he too could see it as one form of the pursuit of beauty. “Bodybuilding is an extreme sport”, Yang conceded, though he stressed that most of his peers begin training by wanting to be healthy. As a scene in the film suggests, personal trainers tell each of them what would be the safe margin for building up muscle weight. Beyond that, it’s a high-maintenance personal risk. “You don’t go back to how you were before,” Yang elaborated, not when it takes so much effort to change in the first place. Throughout the conference, Yang was a convincing spokesman for the (relative) saneness of wanting to be a bodybuilder, and even got congratulated by it by a rather skeptical member of the press. In the film, his appearance/role is a voice of moderation, not only for being closer to the average male outline than some of the other subjects, but because he explicitly states that building one’s figure should be just one of several parts of living life.
A former film critic, Côté occasionally discussed his work by acting as a surrogate for the spectator: one scene, to him, was pretty obviously homoerotic. (Since the observation got an audible laugh from the members of the press, it’s safe to assume that others felt the same.) In the bodybuilders’ culture, however, applying body oil and showing off their muscles, or scanning other bodybuilders from head to toe on first sight, is merely how they measure their achievements. Otherwise why work out, if they are each hidden from sight in their own gym? Côté jokingly concludes that working on this project didn’t turn him into a bodybuilder, but it did make him more accepting of their lifestyle and a better viewer for this particular aesthetic form.Irina Trocan