With a tour-de-force and muscle-bound performance from Matthias Schoenaerts, Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature Bullhead puts masculinity on trial in Belgium.
Animal Kingdom by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Forget waffles and chocolate, this is a Belgium of agricultural mafia, illegal bovine hormone trafficking and threatened masculinity. And apart from its fleeting cross-border love story, Bullhead is unlikely to unite the increasingly divided country of Flemish and Walloon under one common banner – the film’s French speaking petty criminal mechanics are imbeciles, senselessly repeating “There’s a bullet hole!” to each other like a scene from a farce. But true to Bullhead‘s Shakespearean tragedy form, the idiosyncrasies of the Wallonian accent provide a light relief from Michaël R. Roskam’s dark criminal underworlds. And Bullhead is a tragedy, with a man trapped in a boy’s mind, unresolved childhood trauma and the inexorable path of destiny. Indeed, Roskam has a keen eye for fatalism, deftly conjured in shots of darkening crop waves, the static image of an underpass or the pulsating rhythm of streetlights and field drills. (And in case you didn’t get it, there’s even a bell tolling on the soundtrack and an unravelling spiral staircase for good measure.) But the man at the centre of this tragic destiny is Jacky, a centaur of a man – half bull and half boy.
From the get-go, Matthias Schoenaerts’ hunched, lumbering torso fills the screen. (And yes, it is widescreen.) And it’s with an almost fetishistic interest that Roskam’s camera lingers over Schoenaerts’ naked muscular body, his prizefighter’s pose swathed in a blur reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. And no wonder – it is a work of art – injected with steroids and testosterone. But inside, it’s a maelstrom of pent-up aggression and incontrollable emotion. Arrested in his development by a childhood trauma in which a mentally retarded Walloon smashes his testicles, Jacky is a calf in human form; a prime specimen castrated and injected with hormones. And it’s an emotional animalism Schoenaerts nails head-on, with lowering forehead swoops and breathless rages.
Jacky is emotionally and hormonally imbalanced, riding high on a cocktail of hormones and testosterone, and it’s only when Jacky comes face to face with once-upon-a-childhood friend Diederik that his repressed memories of boyhood come flooding back. It’s a chance meeting of two crooks in the meatpacking business – a coincidence – that sets the spheres and Jacky reeling. Diederik was the silent witness to Jacky’s emasculation, and now a police informer and gay, he’s coming to terms with his past cowardice. For Jacky, he’s the sharer of a shameful secret, a very literal threat to his fragile masculinity. But it’s only after this meeting that the man still stuck emotionally in adolescence, with a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings of his first love, tries to come to terms with his sexuality. He tracks down Lucia, his childhood crush, pursuing her like the white rabbit into a brave new world of aftershave, shirts and 20 Euros a drink nightclubs. For Lucia, with all the potency of a Greek myth, is his salvation, his light. The gods however have something else in mind, and dosed up on vodka and hormones, the bullied turns bully, and puts a rival love interest in hospital with a coma.
As the police close in on Jacky, embroiled in a cop-killing through a one-time association with the meat mafia, he’s trapped while bringing his faltering romance with Lucia to a head, terrifying her and nearly breaking down her door, but plaintively and heartbreakingly confessing what could have been, “I am not an animal.” Overdosing on steroids, it’s a wonderful, beautiful end to the tragedy, Jacky turned Raging Bull in a lift, wildly lashing out against all hope and against the three policemen who stand between him and freedom. In a moment of kinetic ecstasy, the tension is released, Schoenaerts’ bundle of hunched, repressed energy finally exploding. It’s a clever moment too that immediately transitions Jacky from beast to boy, without ever becoming a man; the film ends on a final flashback, Jacky with a bullet in his stomach regressing back to childhood.
There’s no doubt Bullhead deserves its Oscar nomination. Michaël R. Roskam’s Belgian gangster movie is a prime cut. Nicolas Karakatasani’s cinematography is stunning, metamorphosing Matthias Schoenaerts’ bull in a china shop into a classical minotaur, with all the impotent tragedy of a Greek myth. Roskam’s script is as tight as the rumps of Bullhead‘s hormonally enhanced cows; from the poetry of his cowshed embrace with Diederik to the fleeting Proustian remembrance invoked by the pull of a bell-rope. There may be an occasional battle in tone between the comic hijinks of the cops and Walloons and the weighty fatalism of his story of a boy unable to become a man, but in truth these circles rarely collide, and Roskam’s debut is a potent and unforgettable exploration of masculinity. Thanks to Matthias Schoenaerts’ mesmerising performance, Bullhead is a brutal tragedy of the irreversible, but with a muscular charge worthy of the bull.
Bullhead is released on 1st February 2013 in the UK