Tuesday, 28 January 2014

filmbore pick of the week - Bullhead

Bullhead (Rundskop)

Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Screenplay: Michaël R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Frank Lammers, Jeanne Dandoy
Year: 2011
Languages: Dutch, French
UK rental release: May 2013 

As the awards season is underway, I always like to look over some pictures attuned to these prestigious events. But this is filmbore, so you won't see your usual fare here. We're just over a month away until the 86th Academy Awards where, my previously reviewed, The Hunt has picked up a deserved nominations for Best Foreign Language Picture. 

This week, we're looking at a recent near miss at the Oscars a couple of years ago with Michaël R. Roskam's Bullhead.

Limberg, Belgium, and cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust And Bone, Black Book) is pushing round another farmer after refusing to purchase his cows. A bull of a man, tense and brewing with fury, Jacky is in the family business of selling beef, while dabbling in the use of hormones to fatten the cattle a lot faster.

Zeebruge, Belgium, and Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval, Borgman, With Friends Like These) is checking out a large stock of beef steaks straight out of a shipping container. He works for a shady, underground organisation, linked to providing hormones for cattle across Belgium. Diederik is driven, but bounding with stress.

Jacky's friend and business colleague, veterinarian Sam (Frank Lammers, Night Run, The Preacher) has news of a new deal for Jacky. He's convinced that this lucrative, is slightly alarming, business venture is just what they need to expand. Jacky has concerned from the off though, but reluctantly agrees for the time being.

An officer investigating the use of hormones for cattle is mysteriously assassinated. This starts to out Diederik on edge. Following this event, with his bosses ever more wary, they task him with connecting with two new potential beef suppliers, Jacky and Sam.

When they come to visit Diederik, the air sharpens. It's clear from the encounter between Jacky and Diederik that there is a past between them, their meeting filling them both with agitation. The tension continues to build during the business lunch, leading Jacky to lose his self-control. What exactly happened between them?

Plus, as childhood sweetheart, now perfume-shop worker, Lucia Schepers (newcomer Jeanne Dandoy) is noticed by Jacky, memories from his childhood 20 years back start to flood back, reminding him of a horrific event that has scarred him for life...both physically and mentally.

Mainly spoken in the Limburgish dialect of Dutch, Bullhead was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012 (just losing out to Asghar Farhadi's A Separation).

This exposure revealed to all a fine actor, with this picture putting Matthias Schoenaert on the map. And righteously so as he's so intense here, owning the lens at every beat. Phenomenal throughout the entire piece, though being a lesser known name internationally, I feel he deserved a sorely missed nomination for Best Actor that year.

It's appearance at the Academy Awards also introduced the globe to the pairing of director Michaël R. Roskam and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. Thanks to their combined efforts, this piece looks fantastic. Crisp filming and great use of natural light infuse the picture's appearance with both a highly professional and accessibly grounded tableau. A lot of trust is put into the natural illumination surrounding the sets and locations of the story.
The film introduces to some beautifully camera work too, as in the first few moments we're greeted by the lens as it glides effortlessly in opening shots, setting the scene from the point-of-view of Schoenaert's Jacky. These smooth pans punctuate the film at key moments bringing an air of art-house flare.

Roskam has also pieced together quite a direct story. It's a slow starter but be patient, as this rewarding drama will surprise you. Flipping briefly back to Jacky's childhood, it provides the relevant insight required to feel empathy towards his plight and to better understand his behaviour. What happened to young Jacky is frightening and unforgivable, and the key scene that exposes this is heavy going, if excellently edited and shot. With this startling moment in place, the tale gradually unravels, drawing you in patiently and confidently - it's an invitation into the perception of a man finally unleashing years of turmoil as he gradually loses control, relentless in his drive to stand up to any who oppress.

His predication for improving himself and maintaining manhood is the spine of the entire piece. There's an interesting analogy in Jacky's career - the hormones fed to his cattle mirror his own injected medication; morality of such substance abuse for his bovine subjects raising the same dilemmas for himself.

He is constantly on steroids and hormones, but there may be a deeper meaning for his repeated self prescription. On one level, his persistent use of hormones and steroids may feed his burgeoning hatred, yet at a deeper plane none of this malice would manifest were it not for his experiences haunting him daily. Looking at from this aspect, the medical abuse and history come hand-in-hand, as he wouldn't require any medication if "that terrible event" never happened in the first place. He has become the perpetual ferocity, triggered from something completely out of his control, and now matter how much control he tries to get back, he falls ever deeper.

Strip away this core thematic, however, and there is something lighter, if bittersweet at play. The complicated relationship between Jacky and Perceval's Diederik is this film's heart. They rarely share a scene together, but when they do the tale elevates above it's expected ability. There's no disputing the relevance of the hormone abuse so clearly illuminated here but I feel there is something a little more beautiful at play here, as Bullhead effortlessly addresses poisoned friendships. even highlighting a hidden, if reluctant, loyalty that can never be fully tainted. Friends will out...

Like me, if you are averse to needles and syringes be prepared to cover your eyes from time to time. Fear not though, as when you can bear to look at the screen again you'll be presented with wonderful lens work, superb performances and a strangely sweet and disturbing tale that you won't shake off for weeks.

Don't forget to leave comments below, tweet me @filmbore or post on my Facebook page here. 

Alternatively, you could contact me directly about this film or my other reviews on pickoftheweek@filmbore.co.uk

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