Beautiful Bodybuilding Drama Gentle Stylishly Interrogates the Superficial

Movies Reviews Sundance 2022
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Beautiful Bodybuilding Drama Gentle Stylishly Interrogates the Superficial

A calculated love story told through reps and calories, the Hungarian Gentle flexes all the right muscles. Writer/directors Anna Eszter Nemes and Laszlo Csuja have found two stunning non-professional actors, injecting their enhancing performances into their beefy tale of bodybuilding obsession, romance and (un)fulfillment. Well-defined and stylishly posed, Gentle has a big heart beneath the bulk.

Edina (Eszter Csonka) is a rising champ in the bodybuilding world. Under the exacting eye of her professional and romantic partner Adam (Gyorgy Turos), she’s qualifying for bigger and better tournaments, evening out her Herculean proportions, and linking her poses together with fluid grace. A stunning opening long take is as unable to look away from Edina as her spectators, twirling around her as she does the same for the judges. Csonka immediately proves herself an engaging actor, compelling in performance mode and with butterflies in her washboard stomach, especially shining when she makes that magical leap from artist to artform when striking a pose.

Gentle doesn’t shy away from the ironically self-destructive facets of the by-definition constructive pursuit. It’s brutally explicit about the body horror of bodybuilding. Needles into engorged veins, faces beaten by dehydration and exhaustion, hearts pushed to the brink. Edina is the meat, the art, the display. But she is also the one doing the push-ups, the squats, the hours on the exercise bike. It’s grueling and unforgiving, both in the moment and with its results: Not only is Edina’s physique really only appreciated under competition conditions, it’s Adam who gets all the attention from the superfans, both as a man and as a former champ himself. Turos is just as fantastic as his foil, resigned and hopeful and loving behind stoic eyes that once knew the spotlight.

Both performers undergo a shift when faced with the financial reality of getting Edina to the next step in her competitive journey. Affording an expensive cocktail of supplements, lean meats and chemicals—not to mention plane tickets, entry fees, gym memberships—is an expensive ask, especially without a sponsor or patron. Adam tries to get extra work as a Magic Mike-like dancer, but can’t bring himself to (or, as we see Edina stretching him earlier in the film, perhaps simply can’t) perform. So it’s up to Edina. She’ll do it all. Through a contact hanging around the backrooms of the bodybuilding world, she finds her way into specialty sex work, where the superficial links of showmanship and physicality give way to more intimate satisfactions, making the most of her unique build.

She starts simple. She’ll just do what she does on stage: Strike her mandatory poses, tighten her muscle groups in turn, and allow people to fetishize her body. But, like bodybuilding, this gives way to more nuanced pleasures. Not all clients simply want to jerk off as they feel her flex, excited by her extreme body. As she meets one in particular who’s harmlessness disarms her, Gentle goes beneath the tanned pectorals to find themes of denial and desire, of small pleasures and taboos—of seeking relief from the confines of an established and expected routine in harmless, unassuming ways: A nibbled energy bar, a feminine gown, a head in a lap. Edina can be appreciated here for more than her body, a note underscored by a particular John’s penchant for blindfolds.

But one doesn’t become a bodybuilder without leaning towards obsession, and Edina’s desire for emotional fulfillment shifts in an unhealthy way. As her conventional life tightens its grip—as Adam cracks down on her secret nibbles of chocolate or her disapproving father gives another glare at her displays of strength—she flees further and further towards something that can’t save her.

Nemes and Csuja conduct it all expertly with a bevy of stylish techniques. They divide frames between their stars, highlighting their comfortable energy together and the tension that can naturally arise when said closeness masks increasingly disparate motives. As their big competition approaches, Adam becomes more withdrawn and focused while Edina gets more coquettish and rebellious. Their intensity becomes clear in staring takes that mimic the opening sequence. Adam cuts Edina down again and again in a long posing practice session, shot through a mirror that enhances the intimacy and distance one can have with a professional partner. Touching on the same emotions in an opposite way, Edina and her client meet in a series of clandestine locations, culminating in a near-mystical musical encounter in a deep-blue locker room. This emotional heat burns through a cold color palette that’d make Edina’s sparkly bikinis pop even if they didn’t look like rare tropical fish beached on the world’s buffest sandbar.

Gentle’s delightful contradictions of self-harm and self-love bolster the sweet film beyond its garish and attention-grabbing premise. Just as its stars clearly have more to offer than their images, Nemes and Csuja’s movie interrogates superficiality in all forms—and pushes those who’ve made it their business to the limits.

Director: Anna Eszter Nemes, Laszlo Csuja
Writers: Anna Eszter Nemes, Laszlo Csuja
Stars: Eszter Csonka, Gyorgy Turos, Csaba Krisztik
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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