Directed by Michaël R. Roskam
Out of all the movies that were nominees or contenders from last year’s Best Foreign Picture Oscars, Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead is my ‘holdout’. I use that word because there have been waves of those movies being released starting with TIFF and after that, the Oscar season. It never seemed to have gotten a proper release here in Toronto until a one-night engagement at this year’s Inside Out. And The Grid’s Jason Anderson called it ‘the second-weirdest contender for the Oscar for best foreign film in recent years,’ and calling a movie ‘weird’ is a sure fire way of getting my butt into a seat.
Unless he used the word to mean that it was undeserving of the nomination, or that I’m desensitized and difficult to shock, the movie isn’t weird at all. Sure there’s a lot of body transformation here, as we watch protagonist Jacky Vanmarsenille (Mattias Schoenaerts) transform within four different physical selves. He’s a stocky herder; his faded clothes making his facial features stick out to the rival farmers whom he’s intimidating. He also handles the finer side of his business or goes to nightclubs, the civilized, tightly tailored clothes restraining his rage. A naked muscle god who doesn’t shy from injecting testosterone into himself, the camera making his arms look shorter, making him look like one of the cows in his barn. Lastly he’s the skinny, curious kid in his pre-teens, the person he really is despite of his bulk and his anger. Those effects aren’t weird but nifty, the movie cautiously negotiating between his clashing self-hoods.
The movie is a series of complementary opposites. It’s dirty and tactile, using the rural setting as a starting point to make way for the soiled luxury cars, garages and barns where the characters lurk. It has that sleekness of recent Northern European cinema. I see this belonging with the likes of Black Swan, Drive, Shame, Pariah and Rampart, all these belonging with each other as they all, in their own way, face questions of body horror, sexual ambiguity and contemporary sexual repression, and the neon-lit aesthetic of the places where these characters escape. It also has the kind of pacing that isn’t for audiences who want their nudity and violence through meditative solitude. But I do understand the movie’s aims and I champion it for its sense of purpose.
Hailing from Limburg, within the Dutch half of Belgium, Jacky bellows his anxieties about his business and his dealings with illegal hormone dealers, especially with the murder of a police officer investigating the ‘hormone mafia,’ the mafia including some scary suited men and their comic-relief counterparts. What’s more, there’s a banshee-like middle-management female officer convinced that he’s behind the killing. She assigns Diederik, a quasi-closeted homosexual, to infiltrate his circle. Diederik is Jacky’s childhood best friend, their relationship ending when a Francophone bully named Bruno attacks Jacky in one of the most violent scenes ever depicted on film. And this isn’t a flashback movie without Jacky searching for his bully and his beautiful sister, the latter two having little recollection of who he is.
As much as this movie effectively mixes understated visuals and complex storytelling, it also showcases Schoenaerts’ kinetic performance, exposing his character’s courage and vulnerability. His international recognition has its beginnings here and can hopefully continue with the release of this year’s Cannes favourite, Rust and Bone. Bullhead will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 26.