In 2012, Denis Côté directed Bestiaire, a documentary which captured with simultaneous cold objectivity, and tender sensitivity, the lives of zoo animals, allowing them to be looked at, but also to look back. Côté created a space for a new visual relationship with animals. Taking up this same style, Ta peau si lisse, at Toronto International Film Festival 2017, focuses this time on five bodybuilders.
At first the film depicts their lives from a distance. The men are spectacles of near-inhuman muscles, displaying feats of strength in their workouts and discipline in their diets and routines. Engaging in the unusual (such as a man who is able to pull a whole truck) as well as the commonplace (scenes of bodybuilders playing video games with family), Côté works to gradually move from the initial presentation of his subjects as alien, into a more human, individual representation. Behind the muscles and fake tans, we find real men.
Ta peau si lisse brings a warmth to its subjects through its gradual development of the personal. But the film concludes in a different way. After its exploration of “alien” bodies enhanced unimaginably, and humanizing insertion of interpersonal development, we watch as each bodybuilder meets up with one another, and travels to a country retreat. At a cottage with a lake and sunny field, the film becomes pastoral. In surreal sequences we watch these men swim, sunbathe, feed sheep, and pick wild berries. This tableau is neither like the alienation in the film’s beginning, nor the familiarity of its initial expansion. Instead, unexpectedly, Côté turns to bucolic beauty, transforming his macho subjects into nymph-like visions.
The film is strained, however. The men depicted are shown in depth, and despite their fantastical bodies and lifestyles, we come to see them as sensitive, caring individuals, with strong relationships to their loved ones. Scenes, then, where Ta peau si lisse mocks them, such as an extended shot of one man attempting, and failing, to take a selfie, or an extended shot of another man attempting, and failing, to record a challenging pre-wrestling match hype video, feel mean-spirited.
Coming to know these men, and experiencing the alternative beauty of their insular community and of their magnificent descent into nature, it feels only cruel to poke fun at the silliness of vanity and obsession, which is presented as detached and out of context by Côté, a move which makes it all the more biting when the films laughs at its subjects. While an overall beautiful and intelligent film, the humor, unfortunately, is in poor taste.