French-Canadian auteur Denis Côté is probably best known for his Best Directing prizes at Locarno for his films Elle veut le chaos (All That She Wants, 2008) and Curling (2010), as well as his Berlinale awarded Vic+Flo ont vu un ours (Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, 2013; Silver Bear – Alfred Bauer Prize). However, for each of his “big” fiction films he directs “small”, semi-improvised, documentary-style projects with very limited crew and budget. These films include Carcasses (2009), Bestiaire (2012) and Que ta joie demeure (Joy of Man’s Desiring, 2014). And so, after 2016’s Boris sans Béatrice (Boris Without Béatrice, 2016) came his latest, Ta peau si lisse (A Skin So Soft, 2017).

At first it might seem an ordinary observation documentary about six bodybuilders. But then you start noticing authorial winks and, especially if you are familiar with Côté‘s work, by the time the credits roll you wonder if it wasn’t fiction after all. You are puzzled because it is obviously not a film about bodybuilding or the six men. If you expected a take on masculinity, sexuality, drugs, or weirdness, the film hasn’t delivered. You are left wondering what you have just seen.

A Skin So Soft is enigmatic. It’s fine to keep the mystery so in the interview that follows you won’t read much about the behind-the-scenes and you won’t learn which parts of the film were in fact staged.

Tomáš Hudák: You have made different kind of films, but I feel like this one is somewhere in the middle of your filmography. We can see a little bit of everything and most of all we can see your passion for filming someone who is passionate.
Denis Côté: It’s funny, because I have heard that many times. Sometimes people see two of my films and they say: “Is that the same person?” I like to try a lot of things. If you really look at the films carefully you can see it’s always the same person, but you can also say they are very different.

I am a film lover and a film language lover, meaning I am obsessed with sound, image, and narrative proposition, with how to break the codes of narration. It’s very rare that you come to see one of my films for its subject. It’s never a film to learn about something. For example, Bestiaire is a film with animals in the zoo, but you don’t watch this film to learn something about zoos. Watching A Skin So Soft you don’t learn anything about bodybuilding. It’s about trying things and breaking some of the codes of filmmaking.

TH: Can you be more specific on the codes you were trying to break with this film?
DC: I was wondering: “How can I make an observational documentary that could slowly switch to fiction?” The last chapter of the film is obviously fictional; it’s something I imagined and wrote. Can I start in an innocent way, just filming these guys, and then go towards the fictional project?

I am not an expert on bodybuilding so for me these guys were very mysterious. I met them one by one and it took me five minutes with each of them to fall in love with their story, their dedication, their discipline. Their passion is so amazing that it made me think about my own passion for cinema. If I want to be a little arrogant I would say this is not a film about bodybuilding, it’s about six men who are passionate. That’s it. They could collect stamps and they would be beautiful to film because they have a passion.

TH: Why did you put the old Sandow movie on the final credits? Is it a way of saying “I know there are other films on the subject, I have seen them, but mine is different”? Is it some kind of final hint that the film is not actually about bodybuilding?
DC: The answer is in the question. Why would anybody in 2017 make a film about bodybuilding? It doesn’t make sense. I was aware of many of the films on the subject, including this one 1 which is probably the first one ever to show a bodybuilder. It was shot by William K.L. Dickson and it shows Eugene Sandow, the grandfather of modern bodybuilding. It’s one of the first filmmakers filming the first bodybuilder – that’s how old the topic is. Putting the clip there was like saying “Look, I know there is a history of cinema out there, I would try to be the most original with an old subject.”

TH: The thing is, we don’t learn anything about bodybuilding, as you said, but we also don’t learn much about your protagonists.
DC: When I started this film, I told the guys: “We won’t learn anything in the film, don’t worry; I won’t ask you any questions. For me you are mysterious people and when the film is over I want you to be even more mysterious.” Normal documentary filmmaking would try to demystify what they are doing. My purpose was the opposite: to make sure that we still don’t know them when it’s over. Because it’s their passion, their secret, their thing and we must respect their lifestyle for what it is. It’s a film about not judging.

The documentaries about bodybuilding are usually so boring: “Why did you star bodybuilding? What do you eat? You take drugs?” You know these films exist, go watch them somewhere else. I think when you see a guy weighting his food on a balance on a scale, it says it all. I don’t need to ask him questions. You can see the guy is weighting the amount of protein he has to get during the day.

TH: This is something you do in all your films. The information you give the audience is very limited and you expect people to fill in the gaps on their own.
DC: Sometimes I like to make whole films and say the film is not actually on the screen, so please imagine what’s beyond the frame. For example, in All That She Wants, there are so many pieces of information that are outside the screen. You sit and watch 90 minutes of mystery, but I hope I am leaving enough hints for you to imagine what’s outside. Sometimes I will cut all the backstory of my characters, because I hope the audience is not passive.

The problem is many people in the audience are passive. I understand that for them cinema is escapism and entertainment and they want to watch a film to just disconnect from real life. But for me real life is the passion. You need to find ways to still interest a passive audience by making films that are pushing them to be active in order to fill holes. So when I make a film I make sure to put enough information so you understand the story, but at the same time I try to play a little with the audience and don’t give them everything.

It can be annoying for an audience to watch my films because you never know what you are watching, and you are struggling to get it. They are not generous films, they are tough to watch, but for me it’s rewarding and for some cinephiles, too. Somebody once gave me a beautiful compliment: “When you see a Denis Côté film you are never safe, anything can happen.”

TH: And sometimes it’s alright if we don’t really understand what’s going on…
DC: What I often do is I take out all the context. For example, there is a scene at the beginning of A Skin So Soft where the guy is eating a bowl of cereal. What I like is we start the scene and we feel like laughing; he is making these noises. By the way, I don’t know what they are, I have never asked him. You think it’s because of what he’s eating and then… he cries? So as a viewer you have mixed emotions right away, right at the beginning of the film. You are like: “OK, this film is not a joke, this film is not about laughing at these guys, something is going on in their heads.” This is me calculating where to put that scene and taking out all the context. There is no psychology, no explanation and as a viewer you are lost in front of a mysterious object. That’s what I really like. Playing with all these things and lying to the audience, toying with the audience’s expectation. It’s like Halloween, you never really know what’s behind the mask.

TH: You mentioned that the audience might feel like laughing, but then you make them switch their emotion. The whole film might seem like it will be fun, but the protagonists are never portrayed as a laughing material.
DC: From the very beginning I knew I didn’t want a freak show, no cynicism, not too much irony. Me and my editor agreed that every time we feel we are laughing at these guys, it’s out. The way we look at them is respectful, it’s a film about having the right distance with the subject you are capturing. It’s a loving portrait of mysterious people. That’s why it may be warmer than my other films, but it’s still pretty cerebral.

In many of my films the camera is very austere, there are fixed shots, they are very cerebral and cold. You feel you cannot get to the characters. But here, I fell in love with the guys so that’s why this film probably feels more human than my others.

TH: You mentioned the delicate process of editing and getting rid of things. Talking about playing games with the audience and taking out the context, I would like to know how precisely are your films prepared before the shooting itself?
DC: Everything you saw in A Skin So Soft was made in three days with each guy. Everything had to be planned: at 8 we are doing this, at 9 that, at 12 that. It was all done in a couple of days, but they were changing clothes to give you the impression that we were living with each of them for six months. It’s not a documentary…

I made four big films with budgets over a million dollars. If you want the money from your local institution for such films, you need to write a very precise script and explain your intentions. When I shoot these films, everything is prepared. All the shots I do are on paper, I never improvise. These films are more like traditional films, extremely imagined minute by minute.

And then I take my revenge over those over-calculated films and make a film like Bestiaire. I have zero notes in my hands. I know I am allowed to film in the zoo, I am with two guys, we film animals, and it’s very boring. Just fixed shots of all the animals in the zoo. We don’t know what we are doing. I know I am going to find a concept at some point, but it’s fun to work like that without any knowledge what the final product will be. That is exciting. A Skin So Soft was kind of the same. We had to prepare the scenes, because we didn’t have money (it was made for € 45,000) and we didn’t want to bother the guys too much, but still no script, no notes, nothing.

I really love making films without knowing what the result will be. Those are my favourite. I prefer them to All That She Wants or Curling, because I can watch them 75 times and I am still not sure what we were looking to do. I have lost myself in front of my own work and it’s really exciting. Why would I watch All That She Wants or Curling again? I know the beginning, the middle and the end. I like to call these films “dead”, they are made – they were made. Even if I watch them I see actors playing their part and hear the dialogue I wrote. I never regret doing any of my films, I will always be proud talking about an old project, but I prefer the small “revenge” ones…

TH: You stressed again that A Skin So Soft is not a documentary and earlier you mentioned your aim to blend documentary and fiction. We can see a clash of fiction and reality in many of your films. Why is it so interesting for you?
DC: I was a film critic for a long time, from 1995 to 2005, so I was seeing a lot and did a lot of writing. I remember around the year 2000 there were a lot of films coming out at the festivals with non-professional actors, documentaries switching to fiction. I really like how you can take extremely real people who have no acting skills and bring them into your story knowing they have no talent. This is a real nice challenge and I guess I was really intrigued by this technique. Lots of people say the cinema is dead. I disagree with that. We can still try new things and this cinema that lays between fiction and reality is one of them.

In 2004 I wrote my first feature film Les états Nordiques (Drifting States, 2005); it was basically a film with one professional actor going to a village of 400 people and trying to fit in. There were 400 inhabitants of the village and one professional actor and I didn’t know what the clash would be. The film did pretty well and that’s how I kind of fell in love. These films are very imperfect. It’s impossible to have a strong film using a non-professional with the script. But I like how very fragile they are. I like to see these films as a table which is shaking, and my job is to put a little piece of paper under the table so the trembling stops.

 

TH: I guess you get a lot of questions on what is fiction and what is real in your films, and I do understand why people are asking these questions, but is it really important to know?
DC:A Skin So Soft premiered in Locarno and I was a bit surprised because at the first press conference all the journalists started to ask about precise moments in the film wanting to know what is real and what is staged. There was a lot of mystery around the film, and I was playing along, blurring the lines. To this day everywhere I go to do a Q&A, people are not sure if certain scenes are real or not. It doesn’t matter. What you just saw is a film and you deal with it however you want. If you want me to tell you all the secrets of every scene you would be very surprised to hear that such and such scene is completely staged and this other one is completely true. It’s fun to talk about the deconstruction of how you make a film, but in the end, I think we should stop doing Q&As after films like that. Why do you need me to tell you all the secrets?

Bestiaire is a film that only features animals, no dialogue, nothing. It’s 75 minutes of animals looking at the camera and the audience. It’s an experience. But I have been invited to many festivals where they wanted me to stand in front of the audience and explain what was going through my mind when I made that film. This always kills the mood. A lot of people say it’s an anti-zoo film, it shows all the cruelty against animals. And I say: “Really?” But it’s fine. If that’s what you think, go home and just tell your friends that you saw a film that is very cruel. But if you ask me what I wanted to do you might be very surprised. I like to meet the audience, but at the same time I never stay for the Q&As; I don’t want to listen to the director telling me all their secrets. I think I can go home and live with the experience of the film. I would like the people to keep the mysteries of the film for themselves.

You might be wrong in understanding what you saw, but who cares? That’s how you saw it, it’s fine. But a lot of people need a validation for what they think. They hate being confronted with a film they feel they don’t understand. So the director always gets questioned. People want to go home making sure they understood, they don’t want to be lost. As a cinephile I want to be lost when confronted with a film.

Endnotes:

  1. Available at https://www.loc.gov/item/00694298/

About The Author

Tomáš Hudák (1988) is a programmer and freelance film critic based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Throughout the year, he programs films at independent cultural center A4 – Space for Contemporary Culture which focuses on challenging experimental art. He also works for Cinematik Film Festival in Piešťany, Slovakia and Bratislava IFF as a member of programming department. In the past, he was a film archivist at Slovak Film Institute. He wrote some papers on film history, too.