Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Bullhead

Reviews - Bullhead


Reviewed By John Stakes

Life for film enthusiasts may have returned to normal following the recent and hugely successful Keswick Film Festival (our thanks again to Ann Martin and her team of film ferrets for such a varied programme), but the leading character's everyday life as depicted in last Sunday's Raging Bull of a film was far removed from most people's notions of normality.

Coincidentally the current horsemeat scandal also provided an extra perspective to the murky goings on across the Channel in Michael R Roskam's 2011 debut feature "Bullhead" set in rural Belgium where the French speaking Walloons continued their linguistic and not so civil conflicts with their northern Belgium Flemish speaking counterparts.

As much a character study of the damaged human psyche as a densely interwoven bovine tale of mafia-like cattle trading, Roskam's auspicious but brutal film is linked by the abuse of hormone injection, in the case of the film's leading character Jacky by his obsession with drugs to enhance his physique and sustain his manhood, and in the case of the cattle to speed up their fattening process. In the unfolding bruising drama it is the performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenilles which holds the film together.

The story is partly based on a true-life case of the murder in February 1995 of Karel Van Noppen, a government livestock inspector, who had been investigating illegal practises by farmers and businessmen over the use of hormones. For his pains he was shot dead outside his own home. Seven years later his killers were convicted: three were sentenced to twenty five years each and a fourth man was given a full life sentence with no parole.

Farmer and enforcer Jacky is approached by a slippery veterinarian to make a deal with local businessmen involving hormone injection but is reluctant because of the recent murder of an inspector whose death has spawned an undercover police operation. The local mafia need to dispose of the bullet ridden car which had been driven by the killer and fired at by the inspector.

There are several sub or side plots which muddy the waters and overcomplicate the plot but attention is always focussed on Schoenaerts whenever Jacky appears on screen. Jacky's steroid taking produces an excess of testosterone he finds difficult to manage particularly when his temper is aroused which frequently occurs.

None of the characters elicits any sympathy save Jacky, but this is deliberate so that the film’s cold and noirish feel is maintained. Jacky's physical and mental development has been so damaged by a brutal assault he sustained when a child (which we see in flashback a quarter way into the film) that, as an adult, he lacks any emotional maturity to avoid or manage the disastrous consequences of his own actions and those of others. His drug enhanced body-building is his way of confronting his inability to reproduce, and, literally, providing him with the means to gain acceptance as a real man.

Schoenearts's performance was nothing short of outstanding, raising the level of the film from a moderately intriguing bovine crime drama to an intense and dramatic tragedy. For a man who found the display of human emotion as foreign to him as a kilt-wearing Englishman, Schoenearts's Jacky moved from being an objectionable face-slapping thug to an object of profound pity in a community that both confused and rejected him. At times his face movingly reflected his haunted fear of the world around him As with most tragedies death was the inevitable outcome, and here the two main strands of the film fused as farmer and enforcer Jacky died, shot like one of the cattle, the presence of which had occupied the whole of his life.

Roskam (who also wrote the screenplay) generally maintained a tight hold on proceedings throughout and was rewarded with some exquisite external and internal cinematography from Nicholas Karakatsanis, particularly during the film’s closing sequences. The climax in the flat of the only girl he had ever longed for, Lucia, was utterly gripping and brilliantly executed.

Despite its limited release in 2011 "Bullhead" was immediately regarded as an artistic success, and became Belgium's Oscar nominated entry in the Best Foreign Language category for the 2012 Oscars. Impressive for a first feature. Schoenaerts received several best actor awards for his performance which helped land him the lead role alongside his partner Marion Cotillard in the soon to be released "Blood Ties" directed by Guillaume ("Tell No-One") Canet. Tough going at times but this in no way detracts from its inclusion in the club's repertoire which was more than justified.

Next Sunday the club is screening "No": no, not "Dr No" but Pablo Larrain's 2012 and 2013 Oscar nominated Chilean satirical take on the last days of General Pinochet's fifteen years’ military dictatorship when it was compelled to order a national plebiscite on whether it stayed or was banished. Larrain's last film to be screened in Keswick was "Post Mortem", the eerie one about the mortuary attendant at work at the start of the Pinochet rule in 1973. "No" generated a good deal of controversy on its release as its angle of approach to the referendum was through the eyes of an advertising executive. Sounds intriguing.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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