The arty bodybuilding movie we never knew we wanted

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Ta peau si lisse

The last time I spoke to Denis Côté, his film Boris sans Béatrice was about to be released. He had expressed some reservations about the way the film was being portrayed before release – the inherent absurdity of the premise being sold as an “existential thriller” rather than the fable Côté had imagined.

Boris sans Béatrice wound up being the rare Denis Côté film that “failed” with both audiences and critics; it was rather coolly received by festival audiences and the film press, his two most receptive audiences. (Côté’s films are rarely financial smashes, but they tour more festivals worldwide than the work of any other Quebec filmmakers.)

By his own admission, Côté made Ta peau si lisse as a direct response to the non-starting Boris sans Béatrice. “I’m always going to have that kind of humour, the kind that definitely isn’t a knee-slapper,” he says. “I had the feeling that the entirety of Boris was like that; it didn’t come across. To me, that was funny: a guy in a suit who’s constantly coming up against all these women and a little guy in a suit talks to him. It’s a comedy, and it ends on a positive note. It’s a melodrama! I thought it was subtle, I thought it made you smile. Nope. It didn’t work. I showed the film in Berlin and it was like, ‘Who gives a shit? Who cares about this rich guy’s midlife crisis?’ It didn’t work anywhere; it screened in 30 or 35 festivals, which isn’t much for me.

Ta peau si lisse is my rebound, a reaction to the failure of Boris. It’s my attempt to get back to something much less ambitious: three friends, no notes, no script, no playing with irony… Actually, there’s some irony, but there’s no cynicism.”

Ta peau si lisse follows a handful of bodybuilders in their daily lives – Côté follows some of them to the gym, but more often than not he films them at home interacting with their families, preparing meals, doing household chores and so on. Though the film takes a familiar documentary form, Côté is upfront about it: all of Ta peau si lisse was directed, recreated and staged using these bodybuilders as “actors,” though the film avoids following a traditional narrative.

“I spoke to the guys, took notes and then sort of ‘re-staged’ their lives,” says Côté. “Sometimes I invented absolutely everything, sometimes it’s very real. The movie is meant to bluff the viewer between fiction and documentary; apparently, it works a little bit. We only had three shooting days per guy. I wanted to give the impression that we had lived through something with these guys, which we absolutely hadn’t. The ending, of course, is fully Denis Côté inventing a story.”

It’s a peculiar approach, especially if you consider that the protagonists are pretty far removed from professional actors. As people who pursue a kind of physical perfection, it’s easy to assume that they would expect Côté to make a film explicitly about that pursuit.

“Some got it more than others,” he says. “They’d ask me why I wasn’t filming them at the gym, and I’d explain that it wasn’t really an interesting thing to watch in a film. I’d tell them, ‘Could you do the dishes instead? Take your shirt off and do the dishes.’ They’d look at me weird, and I’d explain, ‘What’s interesting to me is that we take you entirely out of your environment and we watch you do the dishes. Have you ever seen that in a movie?’ You kind of have to approach them like children, but without any condescension. Sometimes they’d pitch me ideas that were just too trashy, too douchey; I could picture 100 people in a darkened screening room slapping their knees and laughing at these big galoots. There are no scenes where you laugh at them; we edited those out.”

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Côté is also open about the fact that the film was built out of a challenge to himself rather than any pre-existing interest in bodybuilding.

“When I met those guys, I was pretty adamant that they were just huge douchebags,” he says. “I was like you – I thought they were completely devoid of interest. But I told myself I’d make a movie about those guys anyway. I wanted to try to look at them in a new way. I wanted to take a very familiar subject that no one gives a fuck about and look at it differently. I needed to find the right distance to respect these guys even though, at the core of it, I’m not really interested in them. It took me about 30 seconds of interviewing them before I fell in love with them. They have a kind of discipline that you and I will never have in our lives. I sank in my chair and immediately moved into admiration.

“I told them, ‘Listen, guys, I’m not sure how interested I actually am in bodybuilding, but you guys are kind of like modern-day superheroes. You don’t really make sense – you’re anachronistic! Your idea of masculinity makes no sense in 2017.’ I wasn’t being so aggressive when I was talking to them, of course, but they could feel that I wasn’t too interested. Their vision of the world is romantic, in a way; it’s not ridiculous, it’s romantic. (…) I wanted to film this trashy world, this spectacular world, in a way that was completely unspectacular. I told myself, ‘Watch me – I’m going to get some poetry into this. I don’t know how exactly.’ I thought these guys were mysterious, and I knew that when the movie was over, they’d be even more mysterious.”

Ta peau si lisse therefore features no talking head interviews, no breakdowns of its protagonists’ workout regimen or protein-heavy diets. It has no interviews about their dark pasts, no chiming in from family members about the toll their careers have taken. The closest thing to a protagonist the film has is a former bodybuilder turned new age healer / physiotherapist who pops up throughout the film. He was Côté’s entrypoint to the world of bodybuilding. In fact, the very early stages of Ta peau si lisse revolved entirely around him.

“I needed something small to bounce back from Boris,” says Côté. “The freakiest guy in the movie – the spiritual kinesiologist new age guru guy, whatever you wanna call him, he’s a guy I’d met 20 years ago. Of all the people I’ve met in my life, he is the human being that I can get a read on the least. I had told him I wanted to make a whole documentary about him maybe five years ago, and he had said no. The idea had stayed at the project state. One day, I stalked his Facebook and I noticed he had 4,000 friends and 3,000 of them were muscular shirtless guys. That was the seed of this idea, of making a movie about a topic that I had no interest in – and one that I think I had no interest in even demystifying.”

Suffice to say that Ta peau si lisse is anything but a conventional look at bodybuilding – one where most audience members won’t necessarily learn anything.

“I apologize for it in Q&As,” says Coté. “I put my barriers up a little; I smile, I’m very sympathetic. I say, ‘Those of you who came to learn something, you must be disappointed. You didn’t learn anything. But honestly, once you’ve seen a guy weigh his food on a scale… you need more? You’ve seen Pumping Iron, you’ve seen things on TV about bodybuilders hundreds of times!’ There’s still a certain amount of prejudice there; we want to learn things. Someone in Locarno wrote a great review, they said ‘it’s a movie that films bodies until we start to feel like it’s filming hearts.’ It was a great compliment. That’s what I wanted to do. I might not ask any questions in the film, but I get some answers. There’s a scene with a guy crying in front of his computer and we never know why. Why should that be frustrating? We got a great look at his humanity. We don’t know why, exactly, but we don’t need to protect ourselves from that.” ■

Ta peau si lisse opens in theatres on Friday, Dec 8. Watch the trailer here:

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