A Soft Spot for Soft Men

in 70th Locarno International Film Festival

by Tereza Fischer

The cover of this year’s Locarno Festival catalogue shows Ötzi, the Neolithic mummy found in a glacier in 1991 and now brought to life on the huge screen of the Piazza Grande in Felix Randau’s Iceman. It is a suitable image for the accumulation of films across different sections of the 70th edition of the festival, which picks masculinity as its main topic. Ötzi’s primitive instincts drive him to avenge the death of his family, carrying with him a baby that survived the enemy attack. 5300 years later the young protagonist in Dominik Locher’s Goliath doesn’t feel he’s enough of a man. His pregnant girlfriend provokes an attack from a brawny bully against which David is unable to either defend himself or protect his girlfriend. The solution for this problem is very simple: He resorts to bodybuilding and steroids. The use of the steroids results in aggressive behaviour, exclusively against women. Despite his newly acquired muscles, he remains weak. Unfortunately, this modern tragedy fails to reach a nuanced view of the problem. As the lead actor didn’t use body-enhancing drugs, the changes to his body are moderate, so there is no visual exploration of the physical mutation.

The opposite can be found in Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft (Ta peau si lisse). This docufiction portrays six bodybuilders obsessed with the perfection of their muscle-bound bodies. The camera examines the results of endless workouts, getting so close we can see the goose bumps. In combination with unpleasant sounds of the men snoring or shovelling food into themselves, the film engages the audience physically with the protagonists. The struggle for perfection produces tension between the men and their families as their lives are focused on one thing only. The film stays on a rather superficial level. But thanks to an otherwise sympathetic approach, Côté doesn’t exploit these men or make them look ridiculous – as Austrian documentary filmmaker Ulrich Seidl certainly would have.

Although John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, the heart-warming homage to Harry Dean Stanton, doesn’t primarily centre on masculinity, it opens with close-up images of the ninety-year- old half-naked body of Stanton showing his everyday routines. Without revealing his face at first, we see an old man washing, shaving and doing yoga exercises in his underwear. For some viewers this might be already challenging and too close. But the film takes an affectionate view of a body that has seen it all, that isn’t busy with looking good. The only fear the protagonist has to admit is to the fear of dying.

In the ice-cold atmosphere of Hlynur Pålmason’s Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre), stripping is not the obvious choice for curling up at home. The protagonists, two brothers, work in a chalk mine and live together in a shabby shed. In this closed society of men where words are rare and harsh, the younger brother longs for love. The only girl living at the premises of the isolated mine is snatched from him by his older brother. The brothers engage in a fierce brawl, and as they fight, their naked bodies slap against each other, their love for one another becoming palpable. They can’t let go of each other; getting physical in an aggressive way is the only possibility for expressing love. Furthermore, Pålmason paints images full of emptiness, cold and loneliness.

In addition to these four films in the international competition, Eliza Hittman contributed “Cineasti del presente” in the parallel section with one of the most compelling portrayals of male anxiety over the male body. Beach Rats tells the story of a young tough Adonis who explores his gay sexuality while his father is dying from cancer in the family’s living room. Frankie is looking for one-night- stands on the internet, especially enjoying older men adoring his body. But he appears only to be overly-confident and strong on the outside. Harris Dickinson portrays him with a transparency that makes you see his deep vulnerability. Hittman succeeds not only in creating full characters but also in representing Frankie’s brief acquaintances sympathetically. Her view of the male body is respectful and sympathetic, never using them as an object of a lusty gaze.

In all of these explorations of strong male bodies and their tendency to violence or, at least, egocentrism, there is always the soft side directly beneath the surface for us to discover.

Edited by Rita Di Santo