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Denis Côté Doesn't Want You to Feel Safe at the Movies

The Quebecois director discusses "A Skin So Soft," his documentary on six bodybuilders and their dedication to the art of the perfect body.
Jorge Mourinha
On paper, A Skin So Soft will probably look like another one of Canadian auteur Denis Côté’s off-center, exploratory documentaries. The filmmaker’s tenth feature follows the daily routine of six Quebecois bodybuilders, and their almost maniacal dedication to the art of building the perfect body. But we know, both from his skewed fictions (like Carcasses, Vic & Flo Saw a Bear or Boris without Beatrice) and from his tilted documentaries (Bestiaire, Joy of Man’s Desiring), that there’s always more to his films than meets the eye. As it turns out, this free-form documentary, shot with a minimal crew for a ridiculously small amount of money, is out to find the people that are hidden inside the body armor—the workout as revelation of an identity, a personality, the muscles as a mere facade for the person inside. It’s a film that Côté himself describes as one of his personal favorites, something that has been confirmed by A Skin So Soft’s warm reception in the festival circuit: premiering in the main competition at Locarno in the summer of 2017, it has since been screened at TIFF, NYFF, Jeonju, CPH:DOX, Viennale, Cinéma du Réel, Doclisboa, FICUNAM and BFI London.
In Locarno, shortly after the film’s premiere, I sat down with Côté for a lengthy conversation that revealed some of his lodestars: assuming his auteur status without scaring away the audience, asking questions while withholding the answers, making sure his audience gets to have an experience rather than just being passive observers.

NOTEBOOK: As a filmmaker, you’ve always shown a particular interest for filming people at work. But in A Skin So Soft we see nothing of your subjects’ work, only their personal life. Why is that?
DENIS CÔTÉ: When you follow people at work, what’s interesting is that, if you’re like me—a filmmaker with no fixed office hours, setting my own schedule for the past 15 years—you ask yourself questions about the nature of work. What does it mean, “to work”? I think it haunts me because a lot of my friends are people who get up in the morning to go to work, and they look at me with a little bit of envy, a little bit of jealousy. I often ask myself: do I lead a better life than them? How can I even compare my days to theirs? Maybe that’s the reason I make films about work. But, in regards to my bodybuilder friends here, three of them work in prisons, so their job was off-limits. It was purely circumstantial, but it also does give it an air of mystery: if you’re asking that question, it’s because you’re asking yourself how do these people earn a living, and maybe by hiding it I create a little mystery.
NOTEBOOK: That is true. But even so, labor is a visual motif that recurs in your films.
CÔTÉ: A ritual, you mean?
NOTEBOOK: Yes.
CÔTÉ: I like rituals a lot. I’m quite a strict person, both in my personality and in my schedule, even if I’m an artist: I get up at eight, I swim every morning… I’m obsessed by correctness, by form, and maybe what seduced me about these guys is that they get up at five in the morning to go beat themselves up in a gym. I think of myself as extreme sometimes, but this is a whole other ball game! I did gain some admiration for these guys. It’s a bit like watching a Greek god at work. I don’t think they’re narcissists, mind you; everything in their lives is very much about depriving yourself to attain the perfect body, pleasure is not something that’s part of their lives. They are into an antique conception of the male body—a man is beautiful if he’s got a super-heroic physique. Which, in 2017, isn’t enough, not by a long shot.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a sense that you’re trying to show them as good giants.
CÔTÉ: Because, when I started, I didn’t see them as good giants. I was like everyone else—I watched them without quite understanding what was their “thing.” So I approached the subject knowing absolutely nothing, being openly curious, wanting to understand their world. But I definitely wasn’t a bodybuilding enthusiast beforehand. And I ended up fascinated. I did get to know life stories, and people who are actually pretty fragile. I didn’t really want to go through their lives to understand what happened when they were 15 or 20 for them to become bodybuilders—as much as there needs to be something, I don’t need to know what it is. I have no need to know what was the trigger. But I did grow very fond of them.
NOTEBOOK: What were you looking for when you were “casting,” so to speak?
CÔTÉ: We were looking for people with a life outside the gym—there would be no interest in someone who only does it, morning noon and night. But when I meet someone like Jean-François [Bouchard], who collects old cars... He invites you over to his place and you find he’s a connoisseur of French music, he loves Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, collects musical instruments… He’s somebody with a life outside the gym. Ronald [Yang] comes from Asian ancestry, and I knew that would lead me elsewhere as well. He’s very close to his family, so when he decided to invite me to meet his family I knew I had something more there.
NOTEBOOK: You make a point to keep your distance from them. There’s a certain decency involved.
CÔTÉ: Yeah, but does it come from me personally, or is it an artistic choice? I think it’s a little bit of both. I’m a filmmaker, but I don’t like digging up the dirt. I’m very reluctant to do it, but at the same time I like to approach cinema through the angle of mystery. I don’t have to thoroughly investigate all my subjects; I prefer to circle around them. Other people like to go all in; I think it’s better to just walk around them.
NOTEBOOK: Is that why you focus on their faces rather than their bodies?
CÔTÉ: Yes! And because I was very afraid to make a voyeuristic movie, a trash movie, aimed squarely at fueling controversy. I thought: what would Ulrich Seidl, somebody whose work I really love, do if he filmed bodybuilders? It would be very different. So I ended up saying to myself, “let’s do it scene by scene, and let’s think of each scene as something we wouldn’t expect in a film about bodybuilders.” So that sense of decency also comes from that. “Oh, so you think I’m just here for the bulging muscles? Then I’m going to film their faces.” I am a bit of a contrarian, I don’t necessarily fulfill the audience’s expectations. For some that’s fascinating, for others it’s frustrating. I make films that ask questions, while most people want to see movies that give answers. I prefer to watch films that ask questions and then go do my homework.
NOTEBOOK: Does your fear of making a voyeuristic movie come from your own previous ignorance to the subject, or is it also a manifestation of your own fears as a filmmaker?
CÔTÉ: [pauses] There is fear in my approach, yes. That’s quite a personal question, but it’s very true. It’s like, I want to make documentaries without inconveniencing my subjects! But I want that to be a quality, not a flaw. I always prefer to watch from a distance, with a mix of decency, a certain awkwardness, and some originality. Personally, I’m not particularly warm; I’m quite solitary and I don’t always feel comfortable in public. And in all of my films, my characters are very much like that, people who live outside, alongside, the world—whether it’s the father in Curling, the women in Vic & Flo Saw a Bear who live in the forest, Boris in Boris without Beatrice who lives up a mountain…
NOTEBOOK: Yet A Skin So Soft seems freer and more relaxed than what you did before.
CÔTÉ: You’re saying it’s less cerebral. There’s probably a reason for that: I was coming out of Boris without Beatrice, where everything was very thought over, very precise, meant to be followed to the hilt. It was my ninth film, my biggest budget ever, my biggest crew—and my biggest flop. I needed to reflect on that. I wanted to bounce back as freely as possible. A Skin So Soft was just three people and a bunch of notes, setting out with a camera in all freedom. It’s for sure one of my favorite films, and it was evidently made in response to Boris without Beatrice. There is more humanity in it, though I’m still very problematically decent towards my subjects. I have often worked cerebrally, yes, and here I’ve let myself go by comparison. You don’t even notice the camera… So yeah, that is a quality, but at the same time I understand that yes, it is a film that talks about me as a human being. I know it, but I can’t quite see how, because of my way of being distant from the world. And I know I can transform that by making films that are more impressionistic, more contemplative, cinematically interesting. It’s my way of keeping myself at arm’s length, of people-watching…
NOTEBOOK: Would you then say that surprise is part of your filmmaker’s toolbox?
CÔTÉ: Yes, because when I was a film critic, I saw a lot of films and I was always writing in frustration. I was never satisfied with Hollywood and with the films I saw… I wasn’t angry, but the trigger for my work would always be dissatisfaction. I would have never wanted to make something like Pumping Iron, I’d be ashamed! And I would always be ashamed of even thinking of doing something akin to somebody else’s. Which is not to say my films are in any way revolutionary! I like it when people say, “have you seen the latest Denis Côté?” It’s a banal turn of phrase, but it means it’s “a Denis Côté,” more than just saying “have you seen the bodybuilding film?” I’m very much into the idea of the absolute auteur; I have a hard time making myself invisible in order to tell a good, entertaining story. That’s never been me. If you’re watching A Skin So Soft I want you to think, “I’m waiting for Denis Côté to show up…,” and in the last chapter I do show up. When the guys go to the countryside, that smells auteur from a distance. And I like that. Yes, I’m part of the auteur set, and when I decided to wear that as a badge of honor, I found it very freeing.
NOTEBOOK: That final sequence is quite a short auteur moment though.
CÔTÉ: 19 minutes, edited down from 44.
NOTEBOOK: Why?
CÔTÉ: When I am in editing I show my films to a lot of people, and I listen to them, unlike many filmmakers... I invite up to 20 people to see it, two at a time. I would always ask, “what do you think of the ending in the countryside? Do you like it?” And they said, “Yeah, but you get the gist of what you’re getting at really quickly.” Basically everyone said it was overlong, and since I do listen to people, I shortened it. We do make films to be a little bit loved, you know. I’m not the kind of radical that says “you can fuck off if you don’t like it”!
NOTEBOOK: Which is kind of contradictory. You want to be loved, but you stay very private...
CÔTÉ: I have a lot of contradictions, a lot of paradoxes, I know. I can say something and my film can say the opposite. I’ve always been like that; my friends often say I always make my contradictions crystal clear. But I do think it makes for interesting work. Somebody once wrote that you never feel safe when a Denis Côté film starts. But I don’t go to the movies to feel safe. I want people to live an experience, I don’t want them to feel safe. 

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