More Than Bodybuilding

Released to theaters last year, Bodybuilder is one of the few French movies to take place in the world of weightlifting. American readers are likely to be accustomed to brawny actors. Who doesn’t remember Schwarzenegger's massive, aesthetic body in the seminal classic Terminator? He inspired an incalculable number of young people to take up lifting. The widespread use of anabolic steroids by Hollywood actors seems to me an important shift that reveals an equally abundant propensity. Achieving a massive, masculine, muscular body has always been recognized as a great achievement—both from the aesthetic and the hard work implied.

In France, however, the outlook on bodybuilding has long been quite different. The sophisticated culture of Paris, with its crowning complex use of words, operas, and other forms of art denoting a trained taste also carried an old-fashioned dichotomy between the body and mind. Just as the ancient nobility couldn't bear to work, the sophisticated bourgeois shouldn't bear the mark of physical toil. A fat belly, as long as it was covered with an expensive waistcoat, signaled a higher social value than any physical practice.

Eventually, the Marxist upheavals of the twentieth century only reinforced the trend through Leftism mixed with social signaling through words and extensive lecturing. The “body liberation” some theorized was inspired by Freud and Marcuse, promoters of free sex, masturbation, and meaningless “artistic” performances. It did not include the practice of sport. Indeed, sport was seen as alienating, “fascist,” and above all a sign of low intelligence. The popular show Les guignols de l'info has long presented athletes as idiots, unable to produce an articulate discourse—in contrast with the scrawny or fat, highly articulate intellectuals. Bodybuilding was quietly despised as a mechanical, wordless practice. A popular dictum encapsulated this outlook: “everything in the muscles, nothing in the head.” As if, to have an interesting mind, one had to neglect his body.

Over the last few years, mentalities have been evolving, especially among the young. Weightlifting and working out in general became valued among twenty-something French guys, while I still remember from my childhood how athleticism was depicted as belonging to another realm than the logos. Yet the leftist and artsy social milieus remain far from the treadmills. It is not uncommon to hear a lecturing leftist sneering about the alleged stupidity of weightlifters.

Given the context, one's interest can be hooked when a French auteur film dares referring to bodybuilding in its very title. As the name implies, Bodybuilder is loaded with iron pumping, but also with a subtle meaning. It may be compared with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. A sober staging, a masculine and aging patriarch, a family story featuring social disintegration, roaming thugs: those features can be found in both movies.

An Anti-Hero in a Fragmented World

The film opens directly on an action scene. Antoine, the main character, is awakened from a weed-induced slumber by Luigi, someone he owes money to. Luigi hasn't come to chat with his debtor, a “son of a bitch” who'd better come open the door of his bedroom, as he says, before he kicks it in. Antoine flees by the window, running to escape Luigi's henchman going after him. Fortunately, the latter isn't a good runner and Antoine manages to escape. His running doesn't prevent Luigi from wreaking havoc in his room, stealing a laptop, and violently threatening his mother: “Tell your son we're goin' to find him.”

Although the antagonist is endowed with an Italian first name, Luigi is clearly a North African. His physiology, as well as his behavior mimics those of real North Africans in France. A small-time hoodlum, “Luigi” spends time in a Laundromat, lending money at exploitive rates. Head of a petty crime group, he has no problem resorting to violence for recovering his money as well as doing small-time drug trafficking. Luigi’s violent outbursts remind me of a North African neighbor I lived with for several years. A drug addict, the guy lived off welfare, made a lot of noise during nights, and had no problem of threatening my aging mother as she asked him to lower the sound of his music. This is hardly an exceptional experience: White flight in Western Europe have primarily been motivated by the daily violence of Arabs and Blacks, utterly destroying once peaceful neighborhoods with the passive complicity of protected urban elites. The opening of Bodybuilder is an honest reflection of this sad reality, something rare enough in movies to be shown.

Yet it is not a claim for mere White victimhood either. Antoine, whose first depicted action is running from his attackers, is hardly a hero. A twenty-something youngster, he has no job, no life prospects. Living at the expense of his remarried mother, he seemingly spends his time smoking weed and playing video games. Later in the movie, he repeatedly eats kebab. Indeed, he was brainwashed enough into multiculturalism to claim that Luigi is his friend, although the latter would probably laugh with contempt if someone asked him on the matter. Antoine's appearance tells much: a scrawny body, an unhealthy paleness, wide under-eyes shadows, blood-injected eyes casting an awkward look on everything. For those who know a bit about French White rap, Antoine seems to express the same desperate ethos as Fuzati and Orelsan.

How did Antoine get there? His chase by Luigi isn't the result of his evident obnoxiousness, but of a critical lack of insight. The spectator quickly learns that Antoine borrowed money from various creditors. He pretends to be an insider of the financial world, able to invest and withdraw important returns. The truth is that he merely uses the money of the last creditors to pay back others. His borrowings are a Ponzi scheme. Of course, as Antoine borrows from people of his neighborhood and lives at his mother's home, he condemns himself not only to a failure of refunding the creditors—including, of course, Luigi—but also attracting aggressive retaliation on his family.

Such a lack of insight, or whatever the precise causes of Antoine's erratic behavior, takes place in a wider context. His family is a loose, broken web of scattered individuals. The father is missing, the mother married with another man seems on the verge of emotional breakdown. There is an older brother, Fred, who took his own side, got a wife and a daughter. Fred is a self-made man who strove to create a plumbing company. As he distanced himself from his overemotional mother, he has but little patience for Antoine's fiddling and lack of meaningful activity.

As the mother cringes at her younger son, Fred has an idea: sending Antoine to their father. His own family hardly escapes the logic of broken family links, as Fred’s wife wants to deprive her children from seeing her own parents. Nonetheless, given the appalling behavior of his younger brother, Fred reveals that he secretly maintained ties with their absent dad. Antoine must escape his creditors and find himself a job: the better solution, Fred says, would be going to his father's home.

This is how Antoine will meet someone he had forgotten a long time ago: Vincent.

The Reluctant Patriarch

A strange surprise awaits Antoine. Long ago, his father Vincent was an official for public railroads. When the younger meets the older after years without any contact, Vincent turned into a gym owner. And, to say the least, he is jacked. Through a daily routine of hard work, dieting, and supplementation, Vincent became a respectable bodybuilder with an impressive body. Roschdy Zem, the filmmaker, didn’t chose a usual actor but a real-life professional bodybuilder, Yolin Gauvin, for this role. The spectator discovers with Antoine the day-to-day training with numerous exercises involved, huge weights, gorging on supplements, and buying dozens of eggs at the supermarket. The father’s duties mingle with an immensely dedicated, but also thoroughly individualistic lifestyle. Zem did good work staging the daily life of a professional bodybuilder.

Speaking of Zem, he plays a secondary but important role in the movie: Vadim, Vincent's best friend. Although Gauvin hails from Madagascar, his character is completely French. He appears White, there is no mention of a different ethnicity, his name is French, and Antoine is a hundred percent Gallic. On the other hand, Vadim seemingly hails from another country. Beyond his southern looks, “Vadim” is a Persian name. (Is Zem, originally from Morocco, dreaming of “progressing” from the mediocre Maghreb to the much higher Persian culture?) He is also Vincent's first help. He works at his gym, trains with him, keeps a log of Vincent's training, and sees him every day. Without a doubt, Vadim's discrete help plays a notable role in his friend’s persisting dedication. Far from the resentment stirred up by the cultural Left, Vadim is happy to serve an Aryan as a symbol of manhood. Still, he sometimes dreams about owning his own gym, a wish Vincent eventually helps to fulfill.

When Antoine enters into his father's gym for the first time, his tired looks seem quite upbeat from that world of sweating asceticism. Problems creep behind the corner. Antoine's own lack of manners brings up the first one when he takes a cell photo, without asking, of a muscular woman performing squats. Plus, Vincent doesn't speak much. He is stiff and terse to the point of mild autism. His son didn't know about bodybuilding, he doesn't get it: why compete? There isn't much money to earn from it. Obsession for competition hinders family life. But Vincent aims for something great. He wants to win on stage, being recognized for his shape, his definition. It is, as says Vincent, “something great.”

My own guess would be that social recognition is only a part of the equation. A former officer in an incredibly statist country, more precisely in the hugely syndicated milieu of railroads, Vincent knew what it meant to be a product of his environment. Bodybuilding is about performing the opposite. Building one's body through weightlifting and hard routine, one builds one’s self. He becomes the product of his own passion. His environment, full of weights, machines, and other dedicated people reflects what comes from the inside rather than pouring from the outside. While Vincent's own practice doesn't seem to aim at strength per se nor self-defense, it is at least about something fundamental—one’s identity. Who we are is partly what we do. We may have excellent genes, a rare origin, innate predispositions; but what if all these remain dormant? Or, worse, if some of these are expressed just enough to make us feel incongruent with what we do? Social recognition from competing may be important, but it is also a means for other ends.

Of course, the petty weed-addict Antoine doesn't understand any of this and it is no surprise that he discretely calls his mother begging her to let him come back home. His relationship with Vincent won't be easy. Aside from the striking disparity with his father's world, Antoine's own short-sightedness will create new problems. Family grudges from the past lurk in the background. And, last but not least, Luigi won't passively wait for his money. The small-town gym will meet with the harsher reality of suburbs. You can run, but you can't hide forever. . .

Yet, reluctant as he is, Vincent faces the challenge. He provides some work for his son, lets him mingle with his routine. His focus on the competition, a complete schedule gulping dozens of supplements, daily training, and consuming more than three hundred eggs a week, has to go hand in hand with the unexpected presence.

More Psyche Than Muscles

Bodybuilder shows little physical violence. There is some in the movie, as one can expect from the opening scene, but it isn't a central feature. More important are the psychological aspects expressed through the interactions. The movie shows a scattered family, reconstructed on both sides with a loss of contact between them, and how Vincent retreated into forming another one and his bodybuilding dream. People in there barely exchange signs of affection, not because they don't need to, but rather because they don't seem to get their relationships right for doing so. This aspect is underlined by almost no music and minimal, figurative footage.

Indeed, each of the characters basically lives more or less in his or her own world, at best with his own couple. It will take Antoine's erratic behavior to bring all of them nearer, first reluctantly, then on a better tone.

It should also be noted that Bodybuilder features a touching solidarity scene. A dozen bodybuilders who don't know each other accept to follow Vincent to Luigi's Laundromat for some explanations. Almost all of them are white. Ah, if we had our own Jewish Defense League. . . The climax is a bit disappointing but likely the most realistic Zem could achieve. Bodybuilders may be impressive and strong, they aren't brawlers. Nor do they like politics, something that takes too much time and diverts focus from the fitness game. Maybe this mindset will change as teenagers practice weightlifting for social purposes such as self-defense or seduction.

Simple in its staging, Bodybuilder is a beautiful and sober movie. I can't help but compare it to Eastwood's Gran Torino. The aesthetic, as well as the general pattern, reminded me of the latter. A scattered family, conflicts inside and anomie outside, an aging man that needs to get out of his nest to become a patriarch again, a younger one in need of a role model. Both movies also blend some grandeur with daily life, each in its own way. Where Gran Torino was sublime but ultimately tragic, Bodybuilder shows more realism and allows room for thought. If you aren't afraid of putting up with subtitles—and you shouldn't be—it may leave you pondering with a burning desire to go to the nearest gym. Isn't that a good mix?