Ta peau si lisse (Denis Côté, 2017)

By Aldo Padilla

How are the standards of male beauty defined? Surely, there are several preconceptions in the collective mind about this point, although with a certain tendency, firmness is one of the common factors. Bodybuilding takes to the extreme this idea, the art of sculpting every muscle, muscles that the ordinary man barely looks at, highlighting those proportions by means of a strange wrapper-like shine. Pale skin does not shine, that is why the evident tanning of these characters in search for the right color happens: an artificial skin, hydrophobic and smooth as if it were a new car.

Denis Côté raises a non-tourist observation of a group of characters that worship their body. Different characters with different hobbies, bodybuilders in full swing, some retired and others who just started. Côté’s treatment of his characters does not seek the eccentric portrait and usually avoids the classic freak-show accounting that occurs in films of this type, for example in Ulrich Seidl’s cinema. Their portrait is developed with subtlety and sensitivity, and although this phrase seems like a common place in film criticism, it is of great value to find a humanizing portrait of beings that have an aura of supermen, even there is an idea of savagery underneath.

The strange beauty that defines the six characters seems to be accentuated by the parsimony of some of them in their daily routines. Hardly any voices are heard, and there is a harmony between the discipline of training and inner peace, a harmony that radiates most of the time. During the trainings, glimpses of mutual admiration and a deep idea of individualism take part, events that sometimes radiate solitude. The only character who seems to be apart from that passive performance world is a wrestler who is also dedicated to experiment with his strength, leaving the body aside as a vehicle of worship.

Balance is part of the filmmaker’s proposal, and although it shows some fragility in its subjects, this is contrasted with certain moments of banality and vanity: there is an idea of intensity in the different demonstrations of strength throughout the film. These opposing and complementary facets, at the same time, denote a long work of observation by the director, condensed in few minutes with each character. The film tries to include a vision of a diverse Canada, between Francophone and Anglophone speakers, adding some racial diversity through the inclusion of an Asian migrant among the characters.

The film shares a kind of complicity with another excellent movie with a similar theme: Mister Universo by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, a film where the body was interpreted as a testimony, a kind of book written and a photograph that is retained in the mind. In both cases, there is an obsession concealed by the forms, in the case of the Canadian film the obsession tends to be individual and in the case of Covi and Frimmel the obsession is alien: the body as object of desire, far from sexuality and more close to contemplation.

The idea of perfectionism is something that constantly rounds the film: the mathematically calculated pose, the millimetric effort to highlight the tiniest muscle, such is the difference between the common weight lifter and the integral perfectionist. The vein that is lost among multiple tattoos, giving it a three-dimensional effect, and in front of everything, the idea that any mismatch would collapse this “house of cards”, a well-oiled machinery built for years.

Ta peau si lisse maintains a non-narrative discourse and it is faithful with its premise to the end. All that can define a narrative course is off-camera, such the constant allusions to a final competition that remain in simple ads. The final catharsis is totally different from what could be imagined, far from the artificiality, poses and routine. The encounter of all the protagonists in a bucolic space emphasizes the harmonious relationship of their bodies with nature. The camera leaves behind the flashes and the weights, the trucks being dragged by this superhuman strength, and stops to contemplate the faint glow of the skins under the sun.

Director: Denis Côté
Cast: Jean-François Bouchard, Cédric Doyon, Benoit Lapierre, Alexis Légaré, Maxim Lemire, Ronald Yang
Cinematography: François Messier-Rheault
Editing: Nicolas Roy
Canada, Switzerland, France
2017 – 94 min