Thoughts On: Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011)
This is the Belgian film of the series, made by Michaël R. Roskam.
When talking about Belgian cinema, you are, in a certain sense, discussing two different national cinemas under one name. This is the result of a lingual and political divide that separates the 3 major regions of Belgium, those being the Flemish region (or Flanders), the Walloon region and the capital region centred around Brussels. This is quite evident in Bullhead as, though it can be considered a Flemish film, it features characters and settings from the French-speaking Walloon region as well as the Dutch-speaking Flemish region.
With that said, Bullhead is a devastatingly impactful film. In fact, this is one of the most affecting movies I’ve ever seen. When I saw this for the first time I had to stop the film mid-way through and just sit in silence for a while as, frankly, this movie really fucked me up. This all comes down to the powerful application of its themes as well as the incredible performances, great direction and articulate cinematic language. The only real downfall of this movie is that the drama and the emotion hit their peak around the 45 minute mark which leaves the following half an hour a little bit of a haze – especially on a first watch; I was still a quite zombified. This means that the latter half of the second act is a little sparse of emotional depth, yet too dense with plot details, but gives way to a stronger third act. So, what the film subtextually struggles in managing is its two meeting genres; those being crime and drama.
In fact, there is quite the divide between these two elements of the narrative that aren’t very well linked by the overall subtext. Starting with the crime elements, Bullhead is a partially political film that depicts aspects of the ‘hormone mafia’. This is a colloquial term for the organised crime industry that (in Belgium especially) deal with livestock growth hormones. As with drugs, the mafia exploit the legal ban on these substances which, by EU law, cannot be used by farmers all across Europe. Because the use of growth hormones will increase livestock sale profits exponentially (it is reported to be by anywhere between 10 and 100%), this is a significant underground industry that is run and managed by, to put it lightly, not the most legitimate of people. When, in 1995, a government livestock inspector named Karel Van Noppen began probing this industry and group of people, he was assassinated – and this is the basis of this movie.
However, though there is this political tie-in embedded within Bullhead’s narrative, this isn’t really a significant element of its narrative – at least, not in my view. Because there are no real subtextual ties between the crime elements of this film and the dramatic aspects, this reference to contemporary Belgian history and culture is seemingly a way in which the writer and director, Michaël R. Roskam, gives this film a Belgian identity. And this is an interesting element of Bullhead as Belgium has a long cinematic history that stretches as far back to the pre-film era of the 19th century through figures such as Joseph Plateau, who invented the phenakistoscope. Following this, a few significant figures came out of the 20s and 30s such as Charles Dekeukeleire and Henri Storck – look to a film such as Combat De Boxe by Dekeukeleire for example. It was in the late 80s and 90s, however, that the Belgium film industry really picked up after a few significant features, such as Man Bites Dog, put the industry into the international spotlight. Bullhead is then a contemporary example of a strong cinematic industry that has continued to expand with links to France, Germany, the U.S, UK and more.
Moving beyond the background and crime elements of Bullhead, however, we’ll move into spoilers to discuss further the subtext of this narrative. So, if you’ve not seen this film and don’t want to have it spoiled I can’t refrain from recommending it with the only caveat being that you may want to go in prepared. That said…
Somewhat masked by its hardened facade, Bullhead is an incredibly intimate movie that delves deeply into themes of alienation and existential momentum. In such, through our main character, Jacky, this narrative ultimately asks a question of coincidence and reason. Was it some meaningful decision of fate that has the one girl Jacky would fall for as a young boy be one with a psychotic older brother who would go on to utterly destroy his life? Or, was this simply a tragic coincidence?
Whilst this initial question is one that is seemingly simply answered, Bullhead’s narrative bookends Jack’s life with the same failed romance, implying that maybe it was more than coincidence that had lightning strike tragedy twice. And even if we are not now left struggling with this question of coincidence and reason, we can certainly understand that this is what Jacky struggled with his whole life. A significant portion of his humanity was taken away from him when he was mutilated; not only can he not have a family, but he feels directly alienated from women and even some men. Added to this, Jacky can’t even experience genuine human emotions as, without natural testosterone, he feels that his emotional masculine attributes are as synthetic and distant from himself as the drugs he takes are.
This has uncanny ties to the fact that he is a farmer that uses growth hormones on his livestock; he, as he suggests, becomes like the animals he raises. It’s this ambiguous and unnerving fatal phenomena that pervades Jacky’s life that make this narrative so affecting. He, in many senses, becomes a direct product of arbitrary chaos; the alien nature of the universe, time and causation seeps into his body and tells him to somehow walk in this new skin. This internal corruption is an archetypal idea in storytelling and is usually captivated by an exploration of good vs evil (the good of the universe vs the evil of the universe). However, there is an incredibly unique approach that Bullhead’s narrative takes as it transcends a direct exploration of good, evil and morality by encasing this in a mind-and-body-morphing tragedy.
The conclusive paradigm that Bullhead then so perfectly explores is one based on the incomprehensible disorder of the universe anthropomorphising itself through a helpless figure. In such, it takes to the extreme an idea of people being determined and controlled by factors out of their reach and leaves its protagonists with only an inkling of control that he nihilistically, yet understandably, uses to end his life. Such is the shock and trauma that can only really be observed through this narrative as, after all, what more is there to say after all is said and done?
Despite the final line, I’ll end by asking, have you seen Bullhead? What are your thoughts on all we’ve talked about today?
I Won’t Come Back – When Home Calls
Au Hasard Balthazar – The Silent, Voidal Archetype
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