DW Mault can’t help but be impressed by a stunning physical performance in Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead…
Hunter S Thompson was fond of quoting Samuel Johnson as an explanation for his attempt (and failure) of assimilated existence. One does not often think of Johnson as a man who fought animalistic urges, but the statement: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” speaks to everyone on a somewhat distorted perspective. For what is our will to move and chase and destroy ourselves, if not a pathetic attempt to understand the why of our current position; which is of course futile. We only know ourselves and our warped consciousness, no one else’s. Therein lies the problem, but we have Plato’s cave and his descendants to ask questions and leave us with difficult answers, that we perhaps would rather look away from.
Bullhead is an example of that notion of a cinema of the unknown experience masquerading as genre. It’s a film that fails any summing up or plot based analysis; since I first saw it (some 18 months ago), I have left the cinema and tried to spread the word to the untouched masses, a la St Paul, but Bullhead (like all great art) is difficult to summarise. It appears in front of your eyes like an oasis but when touched it disappears, when you imagine you have got its measure it slips and distorts to something else, something good/bad, something horrific.
The debut of Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam, and introduces the force of nature that is Matthias Schoenaerts, a man who will appear in the nightmare and dreams of Anglo-Saxon cinema for decades. Bullhead is at once based on true events and is a lie, but as we know to tell narrative honesty, we need to falsify our waking hours with the imagined horrors of a daily duality that only appears in our false consciousness.
It is the want of the warped cinematic distribution model that Bullhead (nominated for an Academy Award last year in the category of Best Film In A Foreign Language, losing out to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation) is released after what many will consider Matthias Schoenaerts breakthrough roll Rust And Bone; when it was made nearly two years earlier. In that film Schoenaerts embodied the silent stillness of a man confident in his brutish acknowledgment of his life and want that entailed. In Bullhead, which he prepared for for nearly five years, he ceases to be a man and becomes a bastardised version of a bullish minotaur manque. Perhaps the only physical acting performance that gets close to Schoenaerts in Bullhead is Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.
He tells us about his character by saying little, but via movement, with lurches from side to side, showing us the pain of inhabiting his horrific body. By doing nothing he seeps the pain of being a man that is half bovine beast. The pain, sadness and rage contained in this performance cinema hasn’t seen perhaps since Lon Chaney. Make no doubt about it, Matthias Schoenaerts can do whatever he wants and with whoever he wants and it’s going to be interesting to see him develop, but Bullhead is his genesis film and for that we should be thankful.
Roskam (who also wrote the screenplay) gives us a portrayal of corporeality in stasis, disguised as a gangster film that deals in dodgy meat but all the time pushes the audience through levels of mystery, that we are sometimes lost among badly dressed neanderthals looking to gild the lily and make money pumping cattle with steroids for profit…
Bullhead is a film about secrets, whether they be ideas of constructed masculinity, in a world where to show a lack of face and weakness will be punished, or the sorrow and the pity of existence and how we deal or die within playing the hand we were dealt, and how to to be stoical, is the only answer for those harsh days spent waiting to die on a farm.
It is a film that never apologises and never explains (a nod to Lindsay Anderson?), and for that we should be excited. We’re dropped into a world we can never know, a closed society that doesn’t take to being analysed, so all we can do is sit and wait, listen and try to experience our surroundings and how they relate to our hero: Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts), a young Limburgish cattle farmer approached by an unscrupulous veterinarian to make a shady deal with a notorious West-Flemish beef trader. Alongside what at first appears banality comes an unseen murder of a federal policeman (based on a real incident), and how the idea of the past comes exploding through our present to make everyone else’s future beholden to yours.
I’m not good enough a cineaste to be able to conjure how great Matthias Schoenaerts’ performance is. It’s like an idea for a study of Bacon’s figures at the base of a crucifixion. An animalistic scream that can’t deal with the idea of being man nor animal, and hating that idea of duality that will eventually march you down the road you don’t want to go down but which you must, pulled by the rage and self hatred that combines in a nascent sexuality that will destroy everything and everyone in it’s path.
So we ask ourselves what is this little film called Bullhead? Is it Lars von Trier’s idea of nature being the Devil’s playground, or is it more simply the idea of how the greatest of nature is only known and thought about because man exists? Well I guess it’s a little of both, and it gives us two talents to seek, to find and to embrace, and for that if nothing else we should be grateful.
Bullhead screens 6pm at FACT Tuesday 19th March