By Adam Nayman
Published in Cinema Scope 72 (Fall 2017)
William K.L. Dickson’s Sandow (1894) is a three-part documentary study of the Prussian muscleman Friedrich Wilhelm Muller, who adopted the more flamboyant nom de plume after he dodged the draft and joined the circus. Sandow’s placement on undergraduate film studies curriculums the world over owes to its unique historical value: it was the first commercially exhibited kinetoscope.
The Sandow shorts are also mesmerizing on their own terms, however. Film historian Charles Musser identifies Dickson’s rapt, focused images of his subject running through poses as a fleshy predecessor to the so-called “cinema of attractions,” and the parallel between Muller’s fine-tuned physiognomy and the device recording it is suggestive: the strongman and the medium are both flexing their muscles. All of which is to say that Denis Côté’s latest work, which vividly fixes its attentions on the bulky, bulging bodies of a half-dozen Québécois bodybuilders is nothing new under the sun. And its director knows this, sticking clips from Sandow under the film’s end credits as a way of paying tribute to the oldest skin flick of them all.
Ta peau si lisse is also not really anything new for Côté, who has spent the past 15 years toggling between spare, eccentric dramatic features and poetic vérité. In the process, he’s sculpted a body of films whose disparate surfaces and subjects belie an internal rhyme scheme as intricate as anything in contemporary Canadian cinema. Côté’s movies are all different, but they’re also all the same: he’s an auteur, and he knows it. So if one were to position Ta peau si lisse as the third part in a trilogy, following 2012’s safari-park study Bestiaire and the workers-at-the-factory excursion Que ta joie demeure (2014), the placement would work just fine. But it’s equally true that the new film’s gradual mutation from (apparent) documentary portraiture to (seemingly) manipulated fantasy twins it with Carcasses (2008), a film whose title evokes the fragility of human forms as surely as Ta peau si lisse.
The dialectic between softness and hardness—of tender souls encased in impenetrable outer shells—is at the heart of Côté’s project, albeit in a deceptive way. As opposed to George Butler and Roger Fiore’s Pumping Iron (1977), which probed its subjects’ opinions about the process and psychology of bodybuilding (and gave a certain loquacious Austrian his first real star close-up in the process), Ta peau si lisse expresses zero interest in what its participants think about their labours, or anything else: there are no interviews, no explanations, and what little dialogue there is is either incidental or captured on the fly. Instead, it tries to capture something of how it might feel to live so much through one’s body, as well as the isolation that goes with such a solipsistic pursuit. (Think of “soft skin” as a figurative designation and the title makes even more sense.) As usual with Côté, whose sensibility is inherently playful (even in a severe film like 2016’s Boris sans Béatrice) and whose interest always lies in drifting states of representation, it’s a mistake to conflate a coldly observational approach with a lack of empathy.
It’s also a mistake to take it at face value as observation. Enough has been written about “hybrid documentary” in recent years to choke a centaur, but let the record show that Côté was a relatively early adopter of a form that film-festival audiences (and programmers) now take for granted, and that he’s still among its slipperiest practitioners. There is nothing straightforward about Ta peau si lisse, which wears its contrivances lightly but is still absolutely involved in a gamesmanship that will strike purists as frustrating and go unnoticed by others (unless they read the interview that follows, which puts a fine point on the film’s fabrications). Côté isn’t just screwing around, of course: his inventions are in most cases derived from his subjects’ actual lives, and never detract from their shared underlying desire to place themselves on display, Sandow-style. And, throughout, the men’s bodies serve as guarantors of a deeper authenticity. It’s impossible (at least on a Canadian documentary budget) to fake a sinew-tearing bench press or a man dragging a vehicle across a field via a length of chain à la Hercules: the film’s physical spectacle always stays on the level.
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). Even as it’s been constructed out of longeurs, Ta peau si lisse reveals a taut, sculpted structure culminating in a staged group excursion whose obvious calculation in introducing a new, pastoral environment and an (enforced) sense of community to a film previously set entirely in interior spaces and focused on loneliness does nothing to undercut its enchantment. These passages, which are beautifully filmed and in their way very funny, are only as “fake” as any day in the country—after all, what is a vacation if not an escape from reality? 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.
Cinema Scope: Hey, you got a good review in Variety.
Denis Côté: Yes, that was a relief. You know that I made this film to bounce back from the last one.
Scope: OK, let’s start with that. How conscious for you was it to change direction after Boris sans Béatrice?
Côté: Well, Boris sans Béatrice was actually the thing that I was trying to do differently. And I wonder if Ta peau si lisse isn’t sort of textbook Denis Côté. It’s a companion piece to Bestiaire and Que ta joie demeure; it’s observational, it avoids narrative. What I tried to do with Boris didn’t work, so I returned to my comfort zone.
Scope: How and when did you decide that that film didn’t work?
Côté: I say that based on the facts. It was selected for half the number of festivals as my other films, and all my old friends from the incestuous festival circuit were avoiding me and not answering my emails. You feel those things. It was badly distributed locally as well. I still like Boris sans Béatrice, but people didn’t want it.
Scope: Boris sans Béatrice has more psychology than your other films—it’s an interior portrait. Lots of dialogue, lots of motivation, and in that sense it was different than even your other dramatic features, to say nothing of the documentaries.
Côté: I think Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (2013) was the beginning of that. I was trying to be more explicit and more frontal; Boris is very literal, and I hadn’t done that before. Was I confronting myself? Was I trying to say things about myself? I think that I was. In Ta peau si lisse, I’m not there as much. I’m more of a fly on the wall. It was scary to try to write dialogue for Vic + Flo and Boris sans Béatrice, and if we want to scratch the surface, those scripts were me talking about myself. I was thinking about things like, “I have good things in my life, but am I a good person?” That was Boris’ journey, and it was very much inside him. The women in Vic + Flo, they’re living in a shack at the edge of the woods, which is me wondering if I can make a living being a filmmaker while remaining on the margins. They were autobiographical films and very personal films. I may have gotten scared by that. In Ta peau si lisse, I’m nobody other than a film lover who is in love with film language. I say nothing about myself, other than the fact that I’m interested in these guys, which is also maybe because I’ve had health problems.
Scope: You’re a very big, tall guy. Did you ever weight-lift yourself?
Côté: No, but I swim six mornings a week now, and I’m in love with the discipline, whether it’s related to cinema or swimming or whatever else. Discipline appeals to me. I was never into bodybuilding, though. I don’t go to the gym, because I think it’s very boring. Why do you ask?
Scope: When I used to go to the gym more often, I found myself getting very caught up in the routine and the ritual, and sort of checking out mentally while I was there. I can understand how that desire to be fit and sculpt your body becomes therapeutic, or maybe all-consuming. It can take over your life. But you never ask these guys about that in the movie.
Côté: When I started the project, I thought that these men at the gym were mysterious—not ridiculous, but mysterious. They were like modern-day gladiators. I thought that it was amazing that they still believed in that old-fashioned image of masculinity in 2017. I wanted them to be even more mysterious by the time the movie was over. What I discovered about these guys was that they all had a superiority complex clashing with an inferiority complex, and I think that’s very rare. I did my homework. I interviewed them off-camera. I know why they love bodybuilding, but I consciously took that information out of the film.
Scope: In a documentary about bodybuilding like Pumping Iron, what the subjects say while they’re working out is often very funny, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger…
Côté: He’s kind of evil. He’s trying to crush everybody around him! These guys are the same, but I didn’t show that side of them. I think I work by subtraction: I made a list of everything that I didn’t want in the film. I’ve seen Pumping Iron. I think that great films about bodybuilding have already been made.
Scope: What did your subjects think of the fact that you didn’t want the audience to hear what they had to say about their passion? It’s not like in Bestiaire, where you’re shooting animals that have no choice in the matter.
Côté: I was walking the thin line of exploitation this time, and I knew it. The guys didn’t really care about the final result. It was enough for them to know that they would be in a film, but it mattered to me. I don’t want to feel like I’m exploiting anybody, or playing games behind their back. So I gave them all a document to read—a statement—and copies of all my other films. Not one of them read the document or watched the films. They didn’t want to hear anything about my process. So any time I felt like there was irony or cynicism I took it out of the film. They kept coming to me with weird things, very Ulrich Seidl-esque things. It felt like a freak show when we were shooting, so I had to get out of the gym and go to their houses. I asked them to do normal things like the laundry or the dishes. Gradually, they got what I was doing. One day, one of them said to me, “Denis, is this an art film?”
Scope: How did you conceive the spectrum of characterizations throughout the film? The common denominator to your subjects is that they’re all bodybuilders, but there’s such a range of lifestyles: the family man, the young kid, the loner, the wrestler who’s fully monetized his body. You treat them all equally, but even within this narrow slice of life it’s very diverse…
Côté: Everything that you just said is like an admission that it’s not really a documentary, and I love that. The film was cast, the dialogue was scripted, and everything that was staged was based on the interviews we did about their real lives. It also had to do with the budget: we had $70,000, three people, and one car. There was no way to spend six months which each subject. We had three days with each of them, and so it ended up being a mix of scripted material, real things, and accidents. So everything was scripted, although some of it was very real and also accidental.
Scope: How did you go about casting these roles?
Côté: I met a dozen guys. Half of them had no life and weren’t interesting at all. Not every nonprofessional can be in a movie. I asked the men what they did other than go to the gym and they had no hobbies, and their girlfriends were all trainers as well. So I had to look hard. I found a 19-year-old guy and I decided that he would be “the kid” in the story: he would be living at home, working out in his parents’ basement, fighting with his girlfriend. None of that was actually true, though. I met a Chinese guy, which meant that I could explore a different culture by shooting him with his family. The guy with the beard is a specialist in old Québécois music and culture, he knows about old cars…the “spiritual kinesiologist” is just a totally eccentric person. I was able to find some very different men with a similar passion.
Scope: The wrestler is sort of the odd man out: he has a different body than the other guys, and he seems to sort of resent the rest of the group in the final sequence, after you’ve brought them all together.
Côté: He hates them. He asked me why I wanted him in the movie, because he doesn’t care about the aesthetics of his body in the same way as the other guys. He’s strong and they’re not. So I told him that he could use this for his character: he would be an outsider within the group, and be disconnected from whatever the rest of them are doing. During the bodybuilding competition at the cottage, I got him to walk off into the woods alone. You see how the more we talk about it, the more it reveals itself as a fiction. That’s why I was so surprised that at Locarno all these journalists were asking me about what was fake and real in the film. I’ve been in love with this blurriness for 12 years now, and it’s still exciting to me.
Scope: Was there ever the possibility of including any women in the film?
Côté: I had a female subject at first. I was in touch with her for two months and then she left for personal reasons, which I never learned about. I didn’t want this film to try to say things about women and men, so I stayed with the men and their solitude and their craziness and their passion. The women in this community are exactly the same as the men, though. I’m not sure the same movie with six women would be all that different. The men take crazier drugs, maybe.
Scope: That’s also not in the film.
Côté: If you make a movie about bodybuilding, why waste time on diet or on steroids? You already know these things as a viewer, and if you don’t you can Google the answers. I included one scene of a guy weighing his food at the beginning, and that says enough on its own. Once we see how big they are, what other questions really need to be asked? Do I need to show them injecting themselves with needles? I was thinking of Ulrich Seidl the whole time, about how easy it would be to make my movie a freak show. I respect him, he’s a total influence, but he’s always working somewhere in between exploitation and genius. That’s scary to me.
Scope: You’ve been citing Seidl for like 15 years now.
Côté: I know. I’m obsessed with him, because he’s been accused of being so many different things in his career. I always look for where he’s crossing the line in his films. My movie is more gentle than his work: I’m not a gentle person, but I made a gentle film. I tried to protect my subjects, and my editor did too. I got a lot of cheesy moments, and I worried that the audience would laugh at them. One time, one of the men took me into his basement to show me how he relaxed. The room was filled with black lights. He had an inflatable bed and was sitting on it reading poetry. There was a DJ station, and everything was remote controlled. He was totally serious about it.
Scope: You talk about the discipline and the vanity and the obsession of your subjects, and I wonder if there’s a link there to your own practice?
Côté: I have a passion for language—film language—and if you can see the connection to my characters’ own passions, then that’s what I want to hear. I mean, I said before that I was a “nobody” behind the camera in this movie, but it’s not true. It’s not like I’m just somebody who is curious about bodybuilding or the lifestyle that goes along with it. I’m obsessed with my own project, which is filming their obsession. I never really vanish from my movies. I think you feel my presence all the time, which can be a problem but I don’t care. When people hate that aspect of my filmmaking, they really hate it, or else they’re waiting around for the “trick” to come. I’m not Fred Wiseman, and that’s OK. I’m more like Seidl than Wiseman.
Scope: There’s a comparison sitting right there between the final sequence of Ta peau si lisse and the finale of Carcasses, for sure.
Côté: Yes, but what happens in Carcasses is more show-offy. I’m ten years older now.
Scope: As you’re getting older, you’re getting further and further away from being a film critic but you keep getting pulled back into that mindset. Whenever I hear from you you’re at film festivals, watching movies, judging them, talking shit, whatever. “The incestuous festival circle.” How does it affect your practice?
Côté: When I go to festivals, I still line up to see movies. It’s still in me. I wonder sometimes why I need to have an opinion on everything, but it’s a good thing. I watch a lot of movies, which helps me be sure that I’m not repeating what anybody else is doing. I’m a film-festival director, my films are festival films, and I’m at peace with it. That’s where my audience is. That incestuous world—I’m still in it.
Scope: There was that Hollywood Reporter piece that came out during the Karlovy Vary film festival comparing you to Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan, “both of whom are now working in Hollywood.”
Côté: I’m not envious of those guys. I’m not an ambitious person: I don’t dream of making big films in Hollywood. Denis Villeneuve dreams of that, I don’t. I make small films, and I’m not saying it to be modest. I’m in love with my little routine, living in Montréal. I don’t try to create those sorts of opportunities. What would I do if I were directing Arrival? It’s not that I’m closed off to these things, though. If somebody mailed me scripts I would probably say yes. But I’ve had my kidney disease for 12 years now, which makes it hard to project into the future. At some point I’m going to be plugged into some machine, doing dialysis. Can I really think about going and making a bigger movie further away from home? Am I going to be handicapped in five years? It’s like a block that’s in my head. So I make a movie like Ta peau si lisse. I keep it small. Whether it’s for good or bad reasons, or whether I’m afraid to be ambitious, I don’t know. I admire a guy my age who goes and makes a $50 million Hollywood film, but it’s not my reality.
Scope: I was just happy to see you mentioned in the same breath as Xavier Dolan.
Côté: I watch Dolan’s films. You’ve been harsh on him and I sort of disagree with you. For a Québec filmmaker like me, I must admit that he’s been good for our cinema on some level. He puts it on the map. I see kids at universities and colleges and they feel like the world is right there for them. They can do something tomorrow, just like Dolan did. Before I would have said, “Wait till you’re 35, be normal.” And now they have a new role model that makes getting started sooner possible. It’s a new energy and it’s good for French-Canadian cinema. Your job is to take the films for what they are, but I respect the guy.
Scope: I think in Canada we build people up and tear them down, like with Atom Egoyan. Instead of just taking each film on its own terms so our directors don’t get wildly overrated as heroes, we wait to turn on them and then it becomes way too harsh.
Côté: I’ll say this. Everywhere I go, in Russia and Norway—and even now, with you—I have a 15-minute discussion about Xavier Dolan. Because I’m from Québec, there is always a moment where somebody uses me to get news about him, or to give my opinion on him. It’s fascinating. He is a phenomenon. He’s the elephant in the room. He’s also not a kid anymore. He’s going into his thirties. Maybe he will become our prolific and stable Ozon or Almodóvar. The love-him-or-hate-him stuff is done, I think, or I hope it is.
Scope: OK, back to your movie. Has there been a particular response so far amongst gay viewers? Is there the possibility that this film will be programmed in a different substratum of the festival circuit because of its particular sort of homoeroticism and male display?
Côté: The homoerotic thing was out there the whole time we were shooting. When we filmed the competition, I looked around and there were all these half-naked men and women everywhere, but nobody was talking about sex. In this environment, the human body is basically merchandise. The guys are obviously admiring each other on a sexual level even though it’s in this asexual context. I asked them about it, and how they all look at each other, and they said it’s normal. When they watch each other at the gym, they’re just thinking, “Oh, he’s working on his leg, or he’s working on his biceps.” I said it seemed erotic, and they told me that it wasn’t. A couple of them used to dance at gay clubs, and they don’t mind saying it, but there’s homophobia there as well, weird comments about certain things. People at screenings ask me if the guys in the film are gay, and I don’t know how to answer. I think that it’s there and that it’s not there.
Scope: Where did you find the country house for the finale?
Côté: We used it as a production space on Boris sans Béatrice. The owner also runs a theatre in Montréal, and she lives at the house in the summer. The last chapter of the film was very important for me because the guys are all so individualistic: there’s no sense of community between them at all. They are always alone, with only themselves for company. I wanted to make a community for them, so I offered them a vacation. I asked them to bring their luggage and leave their lives for four days, and I didn’t tell them where we were going. The minibus picked each of them up, one at a time, and took them to the country. Once we were there, they enjoyed the break. We shot a lot of material there: in the first cut of the movie, there was 45 minutes at the cottage. I cut it way down, though.
Scope: I want to talk about the last shot of the guy in the doorway watching another one of the men sleeping. It’s very tender, but also unsettling. I’ve thought about it a lot in the last couple of weeks.
Côté: It wasn’t planned like that. The plan was to just end on a freeze-frame of the bus leaving the house, but when we were cutting I saw the shot of this older man watching the kid sleeping and I thought it was really resonant. It was like he was checking in on a prisoner in a way.
Scope: Or he’s trapped: he’s always going to be the older one. He’s Daddy. And when you’re Daddy there’s a sense of mortality involved as well.
Côté: That passion is going to end at some point, yes. Some of the older guys talked about it while we were shooting: they were saying that they wanted to quit the lifestyle and do something new. They can see their own end creeping up on them— their mortality, if you want to call it that. They’re not stupid about it. The dark side of bodybuilding isn’t in the film, but I think you feel it
Scope: In any film that’s truly sensitive or gentle, I think you can feel those things.
Côté: In Locarno, I was doing an interview with a French journalist, and she said she thought the film was going to get bad reviews because the audience doesn’t learn anything about the characters. But she said that she thought that was wrong, because I wasn’t filming bodies, I was filming hearts. That the film was after something beyond psychology. I thought that that was the best compliment I could have received.
Scope: That seems like a good place to end, doesn’t it?
Côté: Yeah, it is.