Bodybuilders go domestic in A Skin So Soft

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      A documentary by Denis Côté. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      Very little is explained in this near-silent doc, with its hazy focus on half a dozen extreme bodybuilders in Montreal.

      Instead, we’re invited to check our reactions to the spectacle provided by trendy francophone filmmaker Denis Côté, returning to nonfiction film after festival hits like 2013’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear.

      In real terms, these men (and two women, both given satellite status to their male partners) occupy a pretty marginal place in the world of sports, or the world of anything else. They are exotic humans, often framed inside incongruously mundane or domestic situations, as when one of our subjects shovels lunch into his mouth, attacking his food with a kind of taut rage like it just called him a pussy. The snorting and the nose ring prompt us to see this monolith of dense and obstinate flesh as more bull than man. And then we realize: whatever it is this guy is watching on his laptop, it’s actually making him weep. How’s that for a twist?

      We’re consistently wrong-footed in this way. One bearded specimen starts to look markedly vulnerable as he flexes for a detached photographer, explaining that he doesn’t smile because of the way his teeth look. Equally, when another of our beef-clad subjects dresses down his girlfriend during a training session she seems barely interested in, and it becomes a discussion of the very tenability of their relationship, the discomfort we feel is attached to a loneliness that otherwise permeates the entire film.

      The compositions are never less than immaculate, producing all manner of random correspondences and a recurring touch of camp that occasionally blossoms into full-blown Tom of Finland territory. Masculinity gets subverted all over the place, undermined by all the preening, or reps that look more like mincing than exercise. Another of these cartoonishly adamantine gentlemen, a mystically inclined healer by day, informs the others that he was once visited by the goddess Isis. So—Pumping Iron it ain’t. But it’s hard to grok exactly what A Skin So Soft is. Or if that even matters.