You might assume the title is ironic, given that Anna Eszter Nemes and László Csuja’s film is set in the strange, cloistered world of grit, muscle and sinew that is elite women’s bodybuilding. But “Gentle” proves as good as its word, though this quiet, sympathetic portrait of Hungarian competitor Edina (real-life bodybuilder Eszter Csonka) does display significant core strength as a patient critique of the pursuit of an impossible body, and how much it might cost the soul living inside.
Edina is waiting in the wings, being primed and last-minute coached by her partner and trainer Ádám (György Turós, also a former champion bodybuilder). She has her few minutes in the spotlight, running through a series of practised poses in a pink sequinned bikini for a sparse audience in a small hall, and wins. This means she will go on to compete in the world championships, which seems to mean nearly as much to Ádám as it does to her. He is taciturn and rather inarticulate, but he is tender with Edina and, though his bulky muscles are starting to soften into mere bulk, he still becomes animated when he describes his own World Championship triumph. He wants Edina to know how it feels to be able to say “I am the best in the world at something”; apparently that memory sustains him even now.
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After a single cheat meal and a rest evening, Edina is immediately back in the gym on her grueling training regime. Naturally more reticent even than Ádám, she obeys his stern directives uncomplainingly, and without a murmur allows herself to be shown off to an observer, as though her body is a joint project over which she retains only partial ownership. “Look how the shoulders are in proportion to the lower half!” says Ádám proudly, like he’s presenting a corgi at Crufts.
Although Edina will be representing her country at the highest level of bodybuilding competition, that’s not particularly high, given the scant support and resources put behind a discipline that no one is sure whether to classify as sport or pageantry. Her life outside bodybuilding is ascetic. She does no socializing, is not particularly close to her uncomprehending family and has no apparent outside interests. But even with such a pared-back lifestyle, money is tight. And the darker side of her training – the steroids, supplements and stringently restrictive diet needed to achieve the 74% body fat loss and severe dehydration which an early title card informs us is standard competition prep – is becoming more costly than she and Ádám can afford.
Without much of a professional resumé to speak of, Edina signs on with a “specialty” escort agency run by a woman she’s seen recruiting at bodybuilding events. Some of the encounters are awkward, with her clients’ fantasies of sexual contact with a Herculean woman often including an element of power play with which Edina, meek despite her muscles, does not appear comfortable. But then she meets clean-cut, well-off Krisztián (Csaba Krisztik), whose more playful desires involve games of chasing in the woods — giving “Gentle” some of its most surreal imagery. And just as her regimen starts to take a dangerous toll on her health, Edina feels a connection that puts a chink in her armor of reserve.
It would be easy to lean into the more grotesque aspects of Edina’s chosen field of excellence, from the womens’ skimpy, spangly bikinis stretched oddly over such pronounced musculature to the slathered-on body oils that stain their skin to a shade somewhere between teak and mahogany. Thick-caked make-up and false eyelashes — trappings of traditional femininity — seem out of place applied to physiques this divergent from the traditional feminine beauty ideal. But Csonka’s reticent performance, gradually unclenching like a fist, drains the film of sensationalism in much the way that Zágon Nagy’s cinematography, with its shadowy interiors and muted compositions, drains the images of bright light. This note can play a little too insistently over the film’s 93 minutes, and occasionally “Gentle,” respectful of Edina almost to a fault, suffers from a kind of dramatic inertia.
But more often Nemes and Csuja’s invested, low-key approach, barely embellished by Tamas Kreiner’s spartan score and Attila Csabai’s unobtrusive editing, feels like the right one for the sorrowful, pared-back screenplay, which shares a certain spiritual kinship with Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Subtly, moodily, “Gentle” works its way under your skin so imperceptibly that you might not even notice you care, until one obviously allegorical interlude when a pig is slaughtered, and you find yourself moved by the parallel between an animal killed for its flesh and Edina, who might be dying for hers.
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