What defines bodybuilding, rather than a general fitness regime or the physical conditioning required for contact sports, is how it sees strength as an end to itself. In terms of how competitions are usually conducted, the measure of time for participants to pose for judges is over imminently: as shown in films such as Pumping Iron, and now the somber Hungarian drama Gentle, it can resemble fashion catwalk more than gladiatorial arena. Also relevant is the post-human aspect: what is bodybuilding if not a way to augment what we know as human features, kneading muscle and physical posture into a heightened form of themselves. David Cronenberg would’ve surely concocted an interesting film set in this milieu, at least in his Dead Ringers or Crash mode.
Anna Nemes (one half of the director team responsible for Gentle) and László Csuja made a straight documentary in tandem with this feature, using the participants in the former as non-professional actors in the latter. More fine-grained and patient observation might’ve enhanced what’s on display here, as Gentle has more invested in being a cautionary tale about this pursuit, and audiences may be convinced of such a thesis before the film even starts. The process of bodily transformation would seem especially suited to a documentary tracking its subject over many months; in a hybrid feature like Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft, exploring the self-affirmation bodybuilding provides proved more original, as well as fulfilling the immediate voyeuristic appeal of just gazing at these individuals.
Eszter Csonka’s performance as Edina, an elite bodybuilder, is taciturn and unreadable, even by the standards of non-professional acting. The initial flurry and exhilaration of her first tournament, seen in Gentle‘s opening sequence, gives way to months of personal and professional alienation: we observe a dogged gym routine, carried out over what seem like 9-5 office hours, and a spartan home life with her partner and trainer Ádám (György Turós), himself a former champion bodybuilder, that offers no pleasurable respite or contrast. Rather than any affection or emotional intimacy, his relationship to her is more like the “stage mother” cliché: he is a coach, supervisor, nutritionist, mentor but never a real partner. A typical line of advice from him to Edina goes “You move like a robot with a broken chip.” The same accusation could be directed at him.
In lieu of sports-world sponsorship, and needing to fund preparations for the upcoming world championships, Edina seeks out a niche form of sex work to cover the costs. This is the film’s other crucial narrative strand, dovetailing unevenly with the glimpses of her public and home life. Like in Foxcatcher, we can gauge a critique from Csuja and Nemes on the austerity many professional sports have to subsist on when more lucrative options such as soccer (to use a European-centric example) are granted such inflated funds. For the first time in the proceedings, Edina finds some genuine happiness with a client called Kriztian, who rather than seeking BDSM-style fantasies allows her to belatedly make use of her body’s dynamism and athleticism, engaging in a deceptively childlike blindfolded chase game, and later cradling him in a forest brook. There’s more of a spark of chemistry than in her bond with Ádám, and indeed more joy perceived than when her arms are interlinked around dumbbells.
Still, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend Gentle, while excusable in a debut for one of the co-directors, when it has such a cautious and underdeveloped sense of itself. Attempts to stoke uncomfortable responses in the audience––namely from the sights of women with ‘roided-up abs and contorted curves––fall into a pro-forma festival film mode of chasing provocation when more enlightening avenues could’ve been explored. It hugs close to a central character the filmmakers seemingly don’t find interesting or even symbolic themselves––not that she has to be laudable––and comes equipped with a feeling of pre-judgement.
Gentle premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.