Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Bullhead": crime drama from Belgium with a life-stopping backstory

It would sound strange to most American film buffs that you could do much in film with an obscure cultural battle within Belgium between the Flemish and the French Walloons, and that there is such a thing as a Belgian livestock mafia.   We don’t think about farming in Europe and the “Low Countries” now in days of battles over finances and the euro.

Nevertheless, when a young cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), who we see pumping himself with shots of steroids and testosterone, sets a web of tragedy and intrigue in motion when he is approached by a veterinarian to deal with a Flemish beef trader.  His chance to prove his manhood socially is set off in motion, and we see this previous quiet bodybuilder going to the dark side.

That’s the setup of “Bullhead” (or “Rundskop”), a 2011 Oscar nominee for best foreign language film by Michael R. Roskam, now on DVD from Image and DraftHouse.   There’s a horrific backstory that layers upon the current day murder mystery that ensues.  There’s a clue in Jacky’s womanish skin, which the camera sometimes indulges.   About forty minutes into the film, we see a reenactment of an incident two decades before when Jacky, just starting to learn about the meaning of sex and girls at age 10, is attacked by a girl’s brother Bruno (David Murgia) who chops off all that matters.   Subsequently the doctors put Jacky on testosterone for life, and his father even asks, “Will he be gay?”

In fact, Jacky’s adult friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), lean but prematurely bald, is gay, and Jacky doesn’t know it; and that hardly matters in the final web of coincidences that get Jacky framed for a dealer’s murder.  (It’s rather like saying that the character Will’s homosexuality in the soap “Days of our Lives” is turning out not to mean much now.)  In the middle of the film, there’s a more recent flashback where Jacky goes to a straight disco (playing the same music I hear all the time at Town DC), and is told he has to wear a shirt. That’s odd, as shirt removal is a ritual in “love trains” in gay discos; for that matter, I’ve also wondered why some straight discos didn’t allow tennis shoes. 

This is a brooding film, over two hours, with a string score by Raf Kuenen, music in C# minor (I checked on my Casio) that reminds one of Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphesen.”  Toward the end, there is a staircase that recalls the effect of a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo". 

On the DVD, the director, after explaining that the rural mafia and other conflicts in Belgium are real, talks about the characters.  He compares Jacky to Batman, someone who wants to be big after a childhood trauma, and even mentions the analogy of locking himself in the bathroom.  (It is a total coincidence that I had rented this DVD the weekend of the Batman-related tragedy -- the DVD came out rather quickly after a brief theatrical run spurred by the Oscars -- but Roskam's comments seem accidentally all too relevant.) In a similar interview, the actor Matthias explains that, because of the childhood assault, Jacky will never be able to "give love" the way a man normally does, even if he receives it.  

The "Making Of" short on the DVD shows how Matthias bulked up for the part, using special nutritious supplements with fish (a kind of "muscle milk"), somewhat reminiscent of how Taylor Lautner did the same thing for the Twilight movies (not a good idea normally at age 16).  I cannot fathom altering my vulnerable body for a movie -- except maybe my own! 

The language of the film is Limburgish, a form of Dutch heavily influenced by German.  The film showed at AFI-Los Angeles and Palm Springs film festivals.
The official site is here

Image rents the film on YouTube “legally” for $3.99. 

The DVD has a 25-minute short, “The One Thing to Do”  (“Une seule chose a faire”), from CCCP and Arte France, where Schoeanaerts and Tibo Vanderborre play two young “pre-terrorists” meeting with an older mercenary (Serge Henri-Valcke) in an outdoor restaurant in Corisca.  After an ideological discussion (with some combat flashbacks, that seem to be relate to the Bosnian civil war in the 90s) about how it’s important to make everybody in the world play the game of life by the same rules, a plot twist occurs (along with some scenes of mass bodies) where the mercenary is to be apprehended for war crimes.

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