Earlier this year, Bullhead was the Belgian entry in the Oscars category of best movie in a foreign language (meaning non-American-speaking).
Its original title in, er, Belgian was Rundskop, and it ultimately lost out to the Iranian film A Separation (opening here on December 7), but getting to the Oscars at all was still a great achievement for a writer-director’s first movie.
The writer-director in question is Michael Roskam, and Bullhead shows every sign of a firm authorial hand on the tiller. The storyline itself is not simple, and it does not proceed in a directly linear fashion, but from the opening voiceover declaring fatalistically that “In the end, we’re all fucked” to the film’s conclusion it has the undeviating narrative trajectory of a Greek tragedy.
The “bullhead” of the title is one Jacky Vanmarsenille, played with superb focus by Matthias Schoenaerts. He’s a kind of a bull himself, a great big hulking wodge of muscle, and the connection between the steroids he avidly consumes and the hormones that get pumped into his cattle is not accidental. When first we see Jacky, he is acting as a strong-arm man for his uncle, who oversees the Vanmarsenille farm; Jacky is intimidating another cattle farmer who has, apparently, broken a secret agreement about what he will supply to the Vanmarsenilles.
In this farming world, there is an underground, as it were — one in which the trade in illegal hormones runs beneath the surface of rural calm. The opening shot, in which we hear Jacky’s voice telling us “we’re all fucked”, is a serenely misty shot of a field and a tree, as though glimpsed at dawn as the morning light begins to spread out over the fields. But of course that voiceover is telling us that this pretty tableau is just that, a pretty tableau: it is surface, mere appearance. The reality, the real life going on for those who live here, is irredeemably dark.
We see Jacky shooting and guzzling his steroids, then, alone in his dreary room, engaging in a bit of shadow boxing — or at least in some kind of mock fight or rehearsal for hand-to-hand combat. The echo here is surely one of Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a portrait of a maddened, delusional figure who nurses his private obsessions and practises his snarlingly aggressive verbal taunts in front of a mirror. Jacky, by no means inarticulate, has by comparison no taunting words to rehearse; his huge body is enough of an upfront statement of violent intent.
Like Travis Bickle, though, Jacky has a love interest, and like Travis he is a bit fuzzy on the protocols of reciprocation. It’s as though he missed out on absorbing some of the important processes of socialisation, so concerned was he to pack on the muscle and build that huge intimidating body to make sure that his masculinity would forever go unchallenged. Yet it’s love that most threatens his cosily vicious universe.
There is a touching and troubling scene in Bullhead that makes this clear, a scene all the more unsettling for its gentleness. Jacky goes to a pharmacy, apparently to get some cologne — but this place, so ordinary and unremarkable for most people, is a cheery, brightly lit place in which he is totally alien. He can barely get a word out as the charming, chattery woman behind the counter, doing a bit of a performance of her own, talks him through the options from the cologne that is most masculine-smelling to the one with a touch of lemon. Each sniff at a sample strip makes Jacky jump back as though stung. His eyes beam bewilderment.
The fluorescent brilliance of the pharmacy contrasts meaningfully with the gloom that suffuses most of the rest of the film. Its palette is largely farmy, which is to say shades of brown and faded green, with dark blues and muddy yellows for some of the indoor spaces in which Jacky finds himself.
Most of those colours are muted, however, by the general darkness that presses upon the frame as though it were at all times encroaching on Jacky’s world.
The plot is one of scheming, skulduggery, betrayal and counter-betrayal, revealed in a zigzagging manner as Jacky and his uncle negotiate their way through a complex deal to sell more hormoned-up beef through illegal channels. In the background is the recent murder of a cop, which may or may not have something to do with this criminal activity. Jacky keeps feeling something’s not right, but is that a valid perception or is it just his ’roid paranoia speaking?
Alongside that plotting, very deftly manipulated and controlled by the writer-director, there are significant subplots (as well as a series of explanatory flashbacks to Jacky’s earlier life) that offer sidelights on the central storyline.
A pair of dealers in stolen cars are nearly comic half-idiots, but their interchanges highlight some of the social tensions that obviously continue to exist between Belgians of different ethnic extractions, adding to an undercurrent that persists malevolently throughout the film and that emerges, also, in the switches between French and Flemish, the languages of Belgium.
At first, hearing Jacky’s voiceover at the start of the film, a solemn voice intoning while we look at a tree, it feels as though the viewer might be in for something not far from a Bergman or a Tarkovsky movie. But Bullhead has the lofty spiritual concerns of neither; it’s all too earth-bound. And Jacky, the bull or the ox of the title, has little spirit left, trapped as he is in that overdetermined body of compacted muscle.