Even if we can all agree that most movies are completely male-centric (otherwise how do you explain the summer blockbuster season?), few of them try to explore what is the essence of masculinity. Blinded by explosions, women in bikinis, car chases and hi-tech gadgets, men in general seem to understand “how” without ever wondering “why” they are the way they are.
In a society where the genders are color-differentiated from even before birth (blue is for boys, pink is for girls) the notions of what makes us different are not only perpetuated but encouraged by mass media; melodramas are for girls, robot movies are for boys. Movies about women tend to concentrate more on their inner lives (perhaps something cinema inherited from the endless stream of consciousness expeditions of Virginia Woolf) but being soulful isn’t a man’s job (unless you’re Liam Neeson). Therefore, it was a real surprise to discover Bullhead, a movie that in pure cinephile terms (apologies for the generalization) might be the equivalent of a “Jane Campion movie for guys”.
Director Michael R. Roskam’s debut feature length is a stunning genre-bending work that explores the notions of masculinity by wondering whether manhood is something that’s earned, as opposed to granted by nature. Set in the foggy lowlands of West Flanders, the film centers on Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young cattle farmer who is approached by a vet who suggests he enter business with a corrupt beef trader. The childlike Jacky enters the criminal underworld where murder and hormone trafficking go hand in hand.
When a police detective is murdered, Jacky unwillingly reunites with Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in over 20 years. Their reunion, however, doesn’t spark warmth and smiles, given that they both harbor dark secrets that could threaten their very lives. To go ahead and spoil more of the movie’s plot would be a detriment to a movie that, despite its subject matter and testosterone-laden aesthetics, is quite fragile.
Shaped after its leading character, Roskam takes the concept of character study to a sublime level as the movie and Jacky become one. Upon our first meeting of Jacky we discover him to be violent and aggressive. We see him punch the air as he trains in the darkness of his room and then a new layer is unveiled when we see him injecting himself with bull hormones. Seeing how nothing in this movie is what it seems (and even this cliché phrase does no justice to how Roskam layers the mysteries and nuances of plot and character development), every turn the film takes reflects what’s going on with Jacky. The story goes from hyperviolent to heartbreaking in a matter of minutes and then saves one last punch that—following Jacky’s own inebriation—acquires almost ethereal qualities.
The story is propelled by Schoenaert’s astounding performance; the young actor gained over 60 pounds of muscle for the part and achieved the kind of transformation that will inevitably get compared to Robert De Niro’s in Raging Bull. Unlike Jake LaMotta, Jacky seems to be an actual animal, a minotaur of sorts trying to balance his animal rage and humanity. The actor vanishes inside a performance that could’ve verged on parody (imagine all the “bulls in china shops” corniness it can inspire) but instead taps into something quite profound. Bullhead is a great companion piece to Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, given how they both use genre to explore more complex concepts about gender and essentially ask us if it’s the flesh that defines who we are (although calling Bullhead a thriller would be quite reductive).
Drafthouse Films have done an exemplary job in putting Bullhead on Blu-ray. The film isn’t “beautiful” in the traditional sense, but the high definition transfer makes the viewing experience slightly different. Juxtaposed against the darker tones of movie projectors, high definition makes the film seem less claustrophobic. The cinematography is ravishing and the color of elements like raw steaks and grass acquire new symbolism when seen in HD.
The sound is also phenomenal and although subtitle options are limited to English (the movie dialogue is in French and Flemish) the overall experience is more than satisfying. Rounding up the set are interviews with the director (an eloquent, learned filmmaker if there ever was one), Schoenaert and a short making of featurette. The best bonus feature is the inclusion of Roksam’s short film The One Thing to Do, which dealt with similar issues of masculinity and starred a similarly unrecognizable Schoenaert.
The inclusion of Bullhead among last year’s roster of Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film was refreshing because it doesn’t deal with children or the holocaust and while it lost the award to a worthy competitor, it remains a benchmark that fills us with hope about the future of movies for men.