in 23rd Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Mario Abbade

The intrigue of “Bullhead” (“Rundskop”) occurs between the citizens of Flanders and the “flamenco” people, the so-called Walons, a cultural minority living in southern Belgium who derive their origin from the Germans and the Celtics, and speak a mix of Romanic, French and Picard languages. These people divide today’s Belgian nation, and recently, in December 2011, were involved in a historical impasse that had imposed on the country a record 541 days without government, under the risk of a scission of the territory between the two groups.

“Bullhead” was selected to represent Belgium at the Academy Award, instead of the Dardenne brother’s celebrated “The Kid with a Bike”, recipient of the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Festival.

The plot is about cattle farmers involved with organized crime who profit off hormones. It’s a really unusual crime scenario that doubles as an essay on the consequences of a brutal act that will not allow the protagonist to evade the past.

The family of the young cattle raiser Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), who use illegal hormones for animals breeding, receives a proposal from a notorious, steroid-pumped “mafia man” of the local cattle industry. The murder of a policeman and the finding of a secret from Jacky’s past initiates a chain of events that will affect the lives of all involved people.

The plot is a powerful tragedy that underlines the inexorability of Destiny. Just like the final scenes, which happen around a spiral staircase, Jacky moves back-and-forth, not being able to stay away from the scenario in which his life story is traced. The elements that surround him are the same, as if time had been suspended: the executioner, the woman of his dreams, the unfortunate companion, the cattle, the hormones…The sense of imprisonment is reinforced when the protagonist feels that consequences prevailed upon its own nature, as well as by a set of claustrophobic sequences staged inside a bathroom, dining room, and night club where the frequent close-ups and the somber use of colors give the movie a noir edge.

Even in front of images that would be considered bucolic – pastures, fields and trees – a heavy atmosphere of the violent organized crime world remains palpable. The debut film of Michaël R. Roskam, “Bullhead”, was inspired by a real story. An inspector of the meat department of the Belgian government, leader of a campaign against the hormones mafia, was killed, shot in his own house.

In the style of a “reality show”, Roskan mentions, every once in a while, the political issues that burn the Belgian territory. In addition to the the recurrent complaint of the flamenco people concerning the dominance of the French language, the director created a couple of mechanics, Christian and David Filippini, that reflect the dissension between the two populations. The two characters played by Erico Salamone and Philippe Grand’Henry may also function as a “comic relief”.

One of the strengths of “Bullhead” is the sober and intense performance of Matthias Schoenaerts who occupies the screen under an oppressive atmosphere of intrigue, reminiscent of Tom Hardy in the gritty thriller “Bronson”.

Artificially swollen by hormones, the protagonist lives in parallel with the situation of the cattle that he raises. Jacky is a bull made hostage of his own. He needs to renew his masculinity hurt by a personal tragedy, but acts like a refugee in a fetal position after violent ravishment. In his mix of explosive aggressiveness and a childish vulnerability, the character reveals, behind muscles and strength exaggerated by testosterone, a traumatized human being trying to recover the innocence lost when he was a child.

With final scenes that fulfill the requirements described by Aristotle for the closing of a typical Greek tragedy, the movie answers to the voice which, at the beginning of “Bullhead”, states: there are things that happen in life that impose that no one will ever dare to speak about it, although, somehow they will arise someday and you will always be, literally, defeated!

Edited by Nathan Lee