From personal experience, when the buzzword ‘body-builder’ is randomly mentioned, many western-routed relatives tend to shudder in awe at the glorious sight of a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger. A competitive activity specifically designed for the fetishistic pleasure of the human body, the obsessive mindset behind the darker side of the renowned culture has led to numerous self-destructive outcomes. Over each waning decade, there have been countless stories on how the art of achieving a “perfect body” desecrated the lives and identities of numerous athletes and even some members of their eager viewership. Discrimination, dysmorphia, and the endless pursuit of happiness. For some, the perfect body is unattainable; where for others, the mere sight of their own flesh relishes them with content and freedom. As more individuals become body-positive and open to theoretical ideas based on personal acceptance and remixed preconceived notions of healthy living, contemporary art has also moved forward with the social movement. Case in point, the recent inclusion of Anna Eszter Nemes & László Csuja’s ‘Gentle’ in the Sundance Film Festival lineup proved vital for the educational sanctity and well-being for cinephiles in passing.
Gentle is a story of psychological resilience, told through the popping veins and sweaty richness of the human body. With angular flesh on display; the film opens with an eerie long take through the preliminary build-up of a competitive body-building demonstration; as the camera tantalises and tempts the on-screen spectatorship. The slithering movement amplifies the social critique; as scenes involving the application of cruel diets, excessive makeup, and grueling physical workouts further highlight the obsessive commodification and preservation of the human body — all told with uncanny realism. The opening act is prominently diegetic; as sounds of sweat, queasy breathes, tears, and other bodily fluids consume each sensitive frame.
Gentle later evolves into an eccentric sex-worker parabel, where our lead bodybuilder protagonist ‘Edina’ descends into a wonderland of objectification. As new clientele stare and fantasise her seemingly perfect body; she simultaneously finds solace in the solemn act of a passionate touch. Some images are angelical, even borderline biblical with Edina’s framing and pleasurable composition. Nemes & Csuja’s direction never remotely borders on exploitation, as the sexually gratifying acts on display serve to aid its thesis on the psychological effects of objectification. When one’s world is rattled by a passionless culture; an escape such as a tender caress on a barren roadway, a psychosexual game of hide & seek, and anthropomorphic tomfoolery can serve as an urgent remedy in our barren wasteland of occupational insignificance.
These scenes of compassionate eroticism ultimately over-shine Gentle’s prominent focus. The sex-work narrative threads are thematically stronger in comparison due to their blazing originality, whereas the bodybuilding components find weaker footing in pre-existing obsessive sports-correlated drama tropes. It’s especially daunting when the film takes a redundant detour with a brief family reunion sequence; which merely elongates and applies more pressure to the film’s depiction of lost ambition and excruciating yearning. These distracting grievances are somewhat ironic, given the circumstances of its tumultuous body-building centric core. Thus, as an ode to lustfulness and the hidden pleasures of the human touch, Gentle serves as a timid reminder to preserve the remaining remnants of the self; to find peace in a disturbed landscape, and avoid the inevitable tragic end.