Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 25, 2012 3:26 pm 
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Belgium's Best Foreign Oscar nominee: a tale of trauma, violence, and addiction in Flanders

The Best Foreign Oscar contender from Belgium is confusing, disturbing, and unique. It's title, Bullhead, refers to its strange protagonist Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sad, scary, musclebound young man with a gentle face who is an extreme abuser of testosterone hormones and steroids, which make him burst into violence. He's been told by his illicit dealer that if he mixes the things he's swallowing and injecting with alcohol he can trash his liver in a week, but he ignores warnings. This addicton and the being he has become seem to go back to a terrible trauma that happened to him pre-puberty, shown in a flashback. Partly the film is a nightmarish revenge tale, and partly it's a confusing noirish saga about a killing, coverup, and investigation.

Jacky is a tool of his family and their illicit connections. All his life they've used illegal hormones, maybe quite similar to ones he uses on himself, in the family cattle business to increase profits. He's being pushed by a veterinarian to make a deal with a mob-related meat seller. But he hesitates because the copes are watching them. An officer who was investigating illegal hormone trading has recently been killled. Police are on the trail of a car that was involved.

Then there's Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). He was Jacky's childhood best friend when the trauma occurred. He should have reported what happened but was prevented from doing so by his father. After that, Diederik and Jacky stopped being friends. Now Diederik has reappeared, and turns out not only to be involved in illegal hormone dealing but a police informer, and gay, and sweet on one of the cops chiefly involved in the investigation of the killing.

It's hard to see the point of all this, except to maintain a clammy atmosphere of danger and dishonesty. But what emerges stares at you like a wound. Jacky is one of the unforgettable tragic figures of recent films. And he is a strangely vivid and real concretization of the idea that comic book style heros arise out of disabilities and deprivations. Jacky is a kind of warped superhero. He seems meek and gentle, almost retarded, but can burst into frightening violence. His world of beasts oppresses him. "My whole life I’ve known nothing but animals," he says, and it's not a happy thought. Besides there is a sense of not only being surrounded by lower forms but also in this Flsmish-speaking part of Belgium -- the family farm is in Limburg, in the Flemish sector -- looked down upon by French speakers. Jacky can speak French, but his command of it is clumsy, almost brutish. Bruno (David Murgia), his arch enemy, was a French speaker. He turns out to be stalking Bruno's sister, Lucie (Jeanne Dandoy), who both toys with him and fears him, and this leads to the vivid final sequence.

In atmosphere Bullhead resembles the English Red Riding trilogy, which is also dark and confusing. This is partly a clumsy film: it tells its story in a way that's obscure and jagged. But the power of its overall effect trumps the botched narrative. Its central trauma, the adult character who looms in the foreground, and the atmosphere of menace and danger that surrounds him are all intensely achieved. This shows a film doesn't have to be in all ways well crafted to make an unforgettable impression. Bullhead is harrowing to watch, and not for the squeamish. Matthias Schoenaerts is real, pathetic, strangely both appealing and alienating. It's an impressive performance.

Roskam's screenplay was in part inspired by the mid-1990s murder of a Belgian veterinarian by what was later dubbed "the hormone mafia," but obviously Jacky is the filmmaker's brilliant and ambitious addition. Would that he could have welded his partly fantastic and mythical portrait, his local atmosphere, and his police procedural into a more seamless whole. I am hoping that the cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis is as good as Variety critic Boyd Von Hoeij says, and that therefore it was an error of processing or projection was what made it look excessively murky at Angelika Film Center, where it was screened for this review. One French critic speaks of Rembrandt.

Bullhead debuted at Berlin and was shown at many other festivals. It opened in US cinemas February 17 and in French ones February 22, 2012. It's gotten very good reviews in both places. Beyond that, this is one of the five finalists chosen from the 65 entries for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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