Bodybuilding is, more often than not, a sport framed in terms of glory, competition, and grandeur. It’s an aesthetic embodied in documentaries like Pumping Iron, centred around Arnold Schwarzenegger during his time in the field. The images and ideologies surrounding bodybuilding are achingly familiar, even when they appear in more contemporary spheres. Here in Australia, the YouTube videos of the late Australian “aesthetics” figurehead Zyzz embodied this quest for greatness for a younger generation. A Skin So Soft takes a different approach when it comes to approaching this quest for an idealised physique. It lends itself far more to impressionistic snapshots of melancholy and doubt than trumpeting triumphalism. It highlights the hesitation and dismay in the moments between the adulation. Denis Côté approaches the figures in his documentary with care, framing their daily habits, capturing their more peculiar pastimes, and honing in on the moments where their obsessive pursuit of glory is stripped away — revealing a layer of conflict rarely seen on a public level.
We spoke with director Denis Côté and Ronald Yang — one of the film’s subjects — at Locarno Film Festival.
I wasn’t sure at first if the bodybuilders in the film were actors, working with a script or whether the film was a documentary. I think that’s a real testament to the way the work flows.
Denis Côté: Somebody gave us an amazing compliment. The word in English would be “seamless”, it was so seamless.
Côté: That’s what we wanted to do. Switching from one guy to the next one, and you’re not supposed to know what’s going on, you’re not supposed to know if it’s staged or not, when you’re watching my documentary. So far, 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.
Yeah. There was never an appeal to any climax or direction, it felt very impressionistic in that sense.
Côté: Somebody said, “You weren’t filming bodies — at some point, you are filming their hearts.” I’m like, “Whoa! That’s nice.” The goal was to do zero interviews, zero music, not say anything while [they were] bodybuilding, to give you the feeling that you kind of understand these guys, even if it’s hard to understand why they do that.
You never capture the grandeur or the idealised moments in the lives of the bodybuilders, it’s more a sort of in-between state: moments of self-doubt, etc.
Côté: I like that, “in-between.” It’s a whole film about in-between stuff. It’s like, the centre of bodybuilding would be stuff we know. The diet stuff, the drug stuff, the gyms, the competition. That is the centre. I was interested by the in-between. Let’s forget about the centre. If you want, watch TV. And what is the “in-between”? Well, it’s the family life, it’s what they do when they’re tired. You never see that. A guy’s sleeping on his couch full of muscles. Usually, we will see him in action, you know? But the whole film is based on these “in-betweens.”
Was that always kind of the intention with the film?
Côté: I’m totally allergic to conventions. So before making the film, I did my homework and I watched various bodybuilding documentaries. Some were totally boring. I’m not sure I wanted to learn about all of them. I was interested by the rituals, the mythology, the concept of the modern day superhero. Do they see themselves as superheroes somehow? What is it hiding? So, I was interested in all these things, then I see Pumping Iron, which is the ultimate reference to bodybuilding. And I was like, “I can’t make this same film again. There’s no way people will be interested in bodybuilding film number 34.” So, it became that kind of angle, which I hope is original.
Definitely, there’s something almost surprisingly unique about the film.
Côté: It’s the pursuit of originality without making a freak show.
I’ve still seen films in the competition here that could relate to other movies quite easily or indulge in certain clichés. Your film and Cocote been two films so far that have carried themselves with a real originality, to me, at least. It’s early days in the festival, but I think that still says a lot about your work.
Côté: I was a film critic for 10 years. I’ve seen so many films, and there’s no way I’m gonna just repeat stuff I saw. I don’t want to make a film with a beginning, a middle and… I prefer the laboratory films like this one. There’s no way there’s gonna be a climax at the end where the competition is raw and now you have to win this competition. I’m not a good guy for that. There’s no way I’m gonna do that.
I think one of the ways in which it reveals itself as it goes on is how very early you’re introduced to all of these characters in quick succession and for me, they were all blurring together at the start. And then, by the end of the film, the film has defined [them] on a purely visual level. Yeah, I don’t need to say anything.
So, the first six guys are introduced to show who they are. It’s very funny. The first guys are really solitary. Second guy is the kid living in the basement with his parents. So you’re like, “Okay, you have the solitary big guy, the kid,” then, you have Siddrick with his girlfriend crying in front of his computer. The guy’s hauling trucks. Him, he’s the family man. So in ten minutes, they’re already characterised one-by-one, and I don’t need to say anything. You feel you already know them.
What exactly was the process by which you got in touch with everyone to make the film, and how did it develop from there?
Côté: And I wanted to make a full documentary about Benoit, the spiritual kinesthesiologist. It was very eccentric, and then the project was not going anywhere and, at some point, very stupidly one night, I looked at his Facebook, because his Facebook has problems. Quite funny, sometimes. And, all of his friends were bodybuilders. There were 3,000 pictures of half-naked guys with crazy tattoos and faces. I’m like, “Whoa, those are characters! Maybe I could through a casting and try to find interesting people.” What is an interesting person is somebody that is not always in the stupid gym. A lot of these guys, that’s all they do 24 hours a day is, [to Ronald Yang] how did you say? Eat, sleep –
Ronald Yang: Eat, sleep, train, repeat.
Côté: And we laugh, but most of these guys, that’s their life. I started doing a casting one-on-one, seeing who is more normal, who has a life outside the gym. So, I ended up with these six guys. So, a trainer, a strongman, a kid, and three competing guys. So I felt I had a cast. I met [them] one by one. Then, we did interviews — “What is a normal day in your life?” — [I] took some notes. Then, we re-created it. It’s not fiction. Every guy was filmed on three days only, and we re-created parts of their lives in three days to make it look like it’s a documentary. But it’s not acting. It’s real situations.
I think people always try and group films as documentary or fiction, as if it’s some kind of foundation for understanding the work. There’s plenty of works blurring that line, and I think they often come out the strongest when there’s an element of reality involved.
Côté: The cinema of the in-between. Stuck between. For me, as a viewer, it’s very fun to watch when I don’t know what I’m watching. Those are the films I like to watch and those are the films I like to make. When I know what I’m watching, “Okay, this film is definitely entertaining. All right.” It tried to entertain me. That’s why I never watch Hollywood. I don’t care because I don’t need cinema as an escape. I’m not into escapism. Most people are, and I totally understand that. They go to work, they go to a factory, they have a family life, sometimes they have a shit life, and at night, they want to watch Spider-Man, which is totally normal. It’s escapism from a shit day at work. I’m a filmmaker. I pay my rent with my free film. I don’t need to watch a superhero film to be entertained. Real life is my entertainment. So that’s why I make those films, you know?
How did your relationship develop over the course of working on the film?
Yang: I had a friend who was working with Denis. She was supposed to be in the movie, but yet, she gave up on her reason. And then…
Côté: There was supposed to be one woman.
Yang: But after that, he talked to me by phone. And I got interviewed, he asked me all these questions, to see if I’m someone that he’s interested in.
Yang: And after that…
Côté: All these guys, they want to be in the film.
Yang: What I see is a good opportunity, to show yourself through competition, through who you are. Of course, he asked my family if they approve of this and he did that to get their support and win his approval. I got along with him very, very well.
Côté: And then, it got a bit weirder, because I proposed them a project. After I film you in your real life, I’m gonna bring you to the countryside for something weird. But they trusted me, they trusted me.
Yeah, that’s like, definitely this complete shift in the film. It just goes off in such a brilliant way.
Côté: Most people saw my films and they wait for that moment when I’m going to switch it up. Distort their reality I’m filming and do something else completely. That’s the last chapter I wanted to take these six individuals, because what they do is all about their own solitude, and put them into a community of big guys and bring them in the mountains, and the forest and the lake and let’s see what’s gonna happen.
So, they didn’t know each other too much beforehand?
Yang: No, not really. We know [each other] almost… We have a Facebook page. Almost everybody is on everybody’s Facebook. But we’re not friends.
Côté: They should stop calling it ‘Facebook friends.’ It’s a network. But some of them knew each other, they met someday at a competition. But put six bodybuilders together, they easily fall in love with each other because they share the same passion. If I collect stamps and you collect stamps, we’re gonna talk for six hours.
Yang: How do you train? How do you eat? All these subjects are so easy because we do it every day.
Côté: That’s what happened in the country house. They talked all day long about what they eat, how they train, so it worked.
There’s this dichotomy between the bodybuilders and the strongmen, where the latter has this physical strength, but doesn’t have the grandeur of the bodybuilders.
Côté: Because he doesn’t like them. When I approached him, I said, “Yeah, I’m making a film with three, four bodybuilders.” He said, “Yeah, I’m not a bodybuilder. It’s still about the bodies, and I don’t like them.” I said, “Why?” He says, “They go for something aesthetic. I don’t care about that. I’m pure force.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s gonna be in the film.” He says, “Okay. No problem.” So, it’s still about the body. There’s no difference between a guy who’s completely obsessed with wrestling and guy who is obsessed by being in the gym and looking good. It’s a passion. It’s a film about men having a passion, not even about bodybuilding.
Seeing that passion manifest in each segment is such a core part of the film. There’s this very particular scene where there’s the family dinner, and [to Ronald] you’re like trying to finish a steak while going in to have the actual dinner.
Yang: Is that so real?
Yeah, it plays that way.
Côté: These are rituals. They don’t need to say anything. It’s only visual. It says what it have to say, and you remember it, so…
Yang: Because bodybuilding is a very solitary sport. It will always be us against ourselves. And even though it’s a family, I cannot put five people around me to [then have them say] “You cannot eat this in front of me.” I will do my things to progress in my size, and after that. I’ll come back, join the group.
Côté: As you just said, it’s kind of touching, it’s fascinating, so there’s no way I’m gonna film that, to make something ironic, to make something cynical. It’s just amazing. The guy has his own personal space, comes back to this family. It’s a ritual. It’s really rich and great.
I think in terms of everything I’ve seen on bodybuilding, there’s a way in which this film adds this huge, emotional landscape to that world. I feel it’s a lot more effective in how you just watch silently as someone is, almost emotionally eating a piece of toast.
Côté: It’s so much more revealing. I filmed a person giving a four-minute testimonial about how they’re feeling. I guess in the film, you have a total access to who they are, so there is not one scene where you feel like laughing at them. Of course, in the editing, I am protecting them. They’ve been very easy to make a fool of. We had some material that was, I don’t have anything in my mind, we do anything that was a bit ridiculous.
Yang: The garage shop.
Côté: It’s a bit dumb, but it says what it has to say about, this obsession of taking pictures of you, selfies, and putting them on Instagram. They do it and so I created a little, dumb scene and we kept it. That’s it. Did you watch the film and feel like laughing at one of the guys?
No, I found the intro a bit comical in the sense that it immediately pushes back on your expectations. You’re watching the most mundane aspects of their lives.
Côté: You know, “mundane” is a good word.
Thanks so much for speaking with us today.
Côté: Yeah, thanks so much for the interview.