Film of the week: Bullhead

Matthias Schoenaerts’ soulful portrait of a traumatised hulk is the key to this Belgian cattle-doping film noir.

Paul Tickell
Updated:

from our February 2013 issue

Bring up the bodies: personal and social trauma lurks under the skin of steroid-fuelled Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts)

Bring up the bodies: personal and social trauma lurks under the skin of steroid-fuelled Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts)

The landscape of the opening shots of Bullhead is familiar from the Flemish borderlands and areas of northern France seen in the films of Bruno Dumont and the Dardennes. But it’s also different because it is quickly apparent that we are in a very specific part of Belgium, in its eastern region near Limburg. An ominous voiceover encourages us to see the misty autumnal countryside as a mythical site. The ploughed fields, fringed by dark woods, signify an agriculture of the damned where secrets lie buried. This place, in short, is “fucked” and will be “until the end of time”.

The voiceover also takes us inside the workaday world of farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, and inside his head. To begin with, it’s his physique more than his psyche that is striking – literally, in that in the opening sequence he’s roughing up another farmer. This hapless guy had better keep doing business with Jacky, or else.

The ‘or else’ is the bull-like build that Jacky’s clothes struggle to contain, and it’s there too in his walk away from the intimidated farmer. Now, as debut director Michaël R. Roskam slows down the action, we see coming towards the camera a classic case of the ‘roid rage’ which at any moment might burst forth from Jacky’s highly muscled frame, as much the product of anabolic steroids as diet and gym.

The gait of such muscle men will always feel like a stage walk, theatrically conjuring up the idea of power and violence. But the macho narcissism isn’t all gazing at the navel punctuating the six-pack: real damage can be done to your fellow man – and woman. In fact, by the end of the film, that walk of Jacky’s is more like a stalk as he goes after the woman who, 20 years earlier, had been the girl of his adolescent dreams.

He literally picks up her scent again when he visits her parfumerie on the pretext of buying aftershave. The film, with its conventional narrative structure, is no cinema of extremes but it does constantly deploy uncomfortable if not downright disturbing scenes, and this is one of them: the beast in a shop dedicated to olfactory beauty.

Old Spice-ing up the viewer’s discomfort is the fact that Lucia Schepers doesn’t recognise Jacky. We have earlier learned from a long horrific flashback that as a girl she had aroused desires in Jacky and in Diederik, his friend and accomplice in pubertal curiosity. Diederik, it later turns out, is gay, but Jacky’s heterosexual burgeoning is cut cruelly short, or rather mashed up, in that he is castrated by Lucia’s brother Bruno holding him down and pounding his testicles with rocks, simply for fancying his sister and for catching Bruno and his friends masturbating over porn mags.

Bruno quips that he intends to dish out some “balls-ache”; such sickening punning reappears in other scenes where the film pushes the boat out to play on the wilder shores of transgressive humour, a further example of the conservative aesthetics of the film’s relatively straight form of storytelling being no bar to philosophical extremism.

Perhaps this is why director Roskam, a painter in his earlier career, cites the influence of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Upsetting as these painters might be, they are conservative rather than revolutionary or avant-garde.

From Freud, Roskam has taken a colour palette which, whatever its intensity, can feel self-consciously gloomy at times, dreary and restricted. From Bacon come the most striking images of the film: the naked male figure in agony on the cruel levelling proscenium that is a toilet or bathroom floor strewn with needles and pills is something of a primal scene for Bacon, and in Jacky’s case integral to his daily routine of Testoviron, Virosteron, Mestanolone and what his dealer describes as the “bazooka” that is Methyltestosterone.

Beauty and beast: Matthias Schoenaerts

Beauty and beast: Matthias Schoenaerts

Alarming as this claustrophobic little theatre of the big fix is, its sordidness takes on a poignancy when we learn that, because of his terrible boyhood mutilation, testosterone drugs have been a necessary part of Jacky’s medication from which it is but a small step into steroid abuse. Furthermore, the stage is set in another way because all the drugging is an extension of Jacky the farmer who, like his father before him, routinely injects his cattle with illegal hormones, forms of the drug Diethylstilbestrol (DES).

In fact, the plot of the film, inspired by the murder of a real-life vet in the late 1990s, revolves around “the hormone underworld mafia”. It’s a phrase used in a TV news report at the point in the film when we learn of the murder of a policeman. Those responsible are the West Flanders de Kuyper gang with whom Jacky’s Uncle Eddy and their vet Sam are doing business. Jacky has always been a reluctant participant but now is left holding the fort, or rather the farm, as the police close in.

Compared to the bold way in which it accesses the traumatised consciousness of Jacky, the film’s police-procedural and thriller elements are pretty unremarkable and at times downright creaky in their plotting. A crazed and drunken Jacky at one point beats a nightclubber into a vegetative state but two other characters appear in a similar condition without adequate explanation.

Touching up the one-dimensional police-procedural with a bit of neo-noir and the sense of unspeakable evil evoked at the beginning of the film gives Bullhead a scope whose ambitions are not always realised. But they are certainly there, even if sometimes it’s only between the lines that you sense a bigger picture. For instance, the drugs theme makes you think of the Belgian involvement in the huge doping scandals in professional cycling.

The object of his affection: Jeanne Dandoy

The object of his affection: Jeanne Dandoy

There’s something rotten in the state of Belgium, the film seems to be hinting. Beyond the drugs and crime lie social and political tensions like those between the Flemish-speaking de Kuyper gang and the French-speaking Walloons who do the gang’s dirty work when it comes to disposing of hot cars. The mechanics David and Christian, like some low comedy duo playing out the stereotype of the impoverished and stupid Walloon, mutter – probably with their Standard Liège bobble-hats on – about hoity-toity West Flanders and the de Kuyper henchman Leon. He sports a Club Brugge scarf, is a fascist, and his work as a mercenary has almost certainly taken him to Africa.

Meanwhile a vet chortles over dinner about selling monkey meat to Africans, another of the film’s uneasy references to the heart of darkness that colonial Belgians and their accompanying atrocities transplanted to the Congo.

It’s a tribute to director of photography Nicolas Karakatsanis that Jacky’s walk near the beginning of the film functions as a harbinger of tensions to come as well a setting off bigger-picture trains of thought. It also gets you asking a more functional question: did the director get a hyped-up bodybuilder to act or did they get an actor to ‘build’? In fact, this truly great performance by actor Matthias Schoenaerts is the result of two punishing years of training and diet – and no steroids.

The gait brilliantly cultivated by the actor is why we can take so much from that first walk. Those “fucked” secrets are not just buried in Flanders’s fields but within a living body. Jacky walks with head pushed forward in the gladiatorial aggression of ‘those about to die will nut you first and salute you second’. But there is tenderness, a soulful beauty at the heart of his brutishness that makes the film, with its sentiment and savagery, a retelling in one body of the Beauty and the Beast myth.

There is also something Christ-like about Jacky’s ‘sacred head ill-used’, as we soon discover. Such a head can be read as bowed – even, for a latter-day minotaur-cum-bullman, cowed, to coin a phrase. And the film keeps on coining them, with its meditation on masculinity (“Do you have the balls?” is a frequent question) and with its many puns on manhood and ‘meat’.

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