Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 September 2012

Bullhead

For a while, as I was watching Michaël Roskam's Bullhead, I thought that the film I was watching was a kind of artfully done melodrama – something like Götz Spielmann's Revanche, which got lots of great reviews and which I liked but didn't quite love. And for a while, Bullhead is precisely that: an artfully made melodrama.

And then something breaks in the film, or lurches. Roskam's film is able to describe – in a moment that I found totally unexpected and in clear filmic language – an event that is horrific and unspeakable. It is an event that is small, really, but which has an absolutely enormous emotional impact. This is something that will stay with me for a long time.

This event, however, doesn't really change the way that the film is attempting to function, and Bullhead stays a kind of melodrama, a film about a man's suffering and his inability to make his life work. The characters in the film's present day are all the same as the characters in the film's flashback sequences; they're just twenty years older now. It's a narrative we've seen before: young man cannot reconcile his own past; his past comes back to haunt him anyway.

Bullhead is also a crime thriller, a story about gangsters. And the flashback sequences, which happen quite early in the film, give us a backstory that makes whatever is to come  in the movie feel completely unpredictable. This is a man whose motives we do not understand, whose pain we cannot comprehend, whose actions we cannot anticipate. It makes the main character (his name is Jacky, but the police surveillance team calls him "Rundskop" / "Bullhead" in Flemish Dutch) absolutely terrifying. He's not scary in a traditional way either. He's scary rather like Ryan Gosling is in Drive – although this character is more lost, more confused, simply more stupid than Drive's protagonist.

Matthias Schoenaerts is absolutely phenomenal. I loved this character, and yet I knew he would do the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing. I never knew what he was going to do next, but I wished I could help him. This is a man who is simply caught in a trap – like so many cattle being led to slaughter. (The bulls are a central metaphor in Bullhead, but their metaphoric presence never overpowers, never feels contrived.)

And then, all of a sudden, Roskam's film is so much more than a simple or even a complex melodrama. It becomes clear in act three that everything from the film's first two acts was all about class. The people who carry the guns are the people in power, sure, but power differentials in mafia circles work in similar ways to power differentials in places like chic Belgian clubs where the owner makes you buy a dress shirt at the door or boutiques devoted entirely to luxuries like perfume.

Bullhead is a film made in Flanders, and the movie nods explicitly to the old tradition of Flemish landscape painting. Think of work like this:
Roskam shoots these kinds of landscapes (complete with bovine inhabitants) as a backdrop to his scenes with his protagonist, and each time he does this it felt to me as though he was recalling a history of the land in which his story took place. These views struck me not as nostalgic ways of looking at Flanders but rather as images of the Flanders that we think we know – tourist images from the history of European painting. The rest of the film is a battleground, filled with unimaginable violence and unexpected brutality.

I don't want to spoil Bullhead any more than I already have – and my narrative here omits the other character, le doulos, who is central to the film's story – but I want also to say that this film's ending is just superb. I needed to take a walk outside after it was over.

If you can handle the violence, I cannot recommend this film enough.