Michaël R. Roskam's Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011) first came to my attention at its North American premiere at the 2011 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival where Nicolas Archambault characterized it in his program note as "cinema writ large." He added that Roskam's debut feature "capably mixes elements of multiple genres with a sturdily dramatic premise, punctuating it with moments of sarcastic humor. While that streak of disarming self-mockery, centered around a pair of risible Walloon mechanics with a strong dislike of the Flemish, Bullhead remains a dark and dramatic suspense film anchored in reality, revealing the hyper-masculine world of backwoods crime culture and shattering the myths of brute machismo by way of the characters Jacky and Diederik."
Bullhead arrived in Montreal after a huge box office success in Belgium (400,000 tickets sold) and anointed with awards from European film festivals, winning its first prizes at the Beaune Film Festival in France (the Jury Award and the Critics Award) and at the Motovun Film Festival in Croatia (the main "Propeller" Award). It then proceeded to gain critical and popular traction by winning the Best First Film Award at Fantasia, gathering six Flemish Awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Debut, Best Main Actor, Best Supporting Role, and Best Photography), being chosen as Belgium's official submission to the 84th Academy Awards®, claiming three awards at its U.S. premiere at Austin's Fantastic Fest (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor) where it was likewise picked up by Drafthouse Films for U.S. distribution, Best Actor at Moscow's "2inOne" International Film Festival, the New Auteurs Audience Award and New Auteurs Critics Prize for Best Actor at AFI Fest 2011, and nine nominations at the Magritte Industry Awards (coming up on February 4).
Having failed to catch Bullhead at Fantasia, I was determined to catch it in the Awards Buzz program at the 2012 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where director Roskam was likewise being honored as one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch". Bullhead walked away from PSIFF with the FIPRESCI prize for Best Actor, given to Matthias Schoenaerts for his "superb portrayal of an innocent and sensitive man trapped in a truculent body." There is no question in my mind that this increased attention at PSIFF secured Bullhead's position on the short list for the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®, further confirming the vital importance of PSIFF for Oscar® track, especially in that category.
As Peter Debruge has outlined at Variety, however, Bullhead has not won its honors without some controversy: "Belgium's committee raised eyebrows this year after picking Bullhead, the winner of six Flanders Film Awards, over French-language Cannes grand jury winner The Kid With a Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne." Confiding that their "quasi-celebrity status in other countries" might have made certain people jealous, Luc Dardenne and his brother Jean-Pierre "reportedly attended a recent screening and cornered the star after the film to share their reaction: They loved it" (Eric Kohn, IndieWIRE). Kohn further asserted: "Watching Bullhead, it's easy to imagine that Roskam could inherit the heated world of double-crossers and violent avengers that put Martin Scorsese on the map."
[The following is not for the spoiler-wary!]
Bullhead was introduced at its PSIFF screening by producer Bart Van Langendonck. Roskam—who at an earlier luncheon had been fêted as one of Variety's "10 Directors to Watch"—was missing in action, apparently still celebrating the honor. Anticipating the questions he now expects after each screening, Van Langendonck listed that the film cost a million and a half, was shot in 37 days, and has had a fantastic festival career. Van Langendonck synopsized that Bullhead is set in a real milieu: the existing arena of the so-called Belgian hormone mafia. Hormones are illegal in Belgium as in most of Europe and, as is often the case with illegal matters, crime organizes itself around such illegalities. Twelve years ago, a veterinarian controller was murdered by the hormone mafia because he was on the trail of hormone trafficking and, thus, this has been and continues to be a big issue in Belgium. That is all that is essentially true about the plot of Bullhead, Van Langendonck advised, while the rest is the dramatization by fictional characters created by Roskam.
By film's end, Roskam had found his way to the Palm Regal for his Q&A, where he was asked about Matthias Schoenaerts' preparation for the role's physical requirements. "It's true, yes, he gained about 27 kilograms (almost 60 pounds) for this role. He's normally athletic, though not like this. We knew each other from working together on one of my short films where we became friends and where I first had the idea for making this movie. I talked to him about it and he said, 'Yeah, I want to do this.' I wrote my first version of the script, he read it, and then I said, 'You realize you are going to...?' and he finished my sentence and said, 'I will do what I have to do. Watch me.' " Schoenaerts worked on other movies while Roskam developed the project and then "at a certain moment he started to gain weight", about 10 kilograms at first, to capture the character's basic physical condition. About a year before the financing came through and it was definite the film would be shot, Schoenaerts gained another 15 kilograms. He was eating every three hours and pumping iron, developing special muscle parts. In that respect, Roskam stated, Schoenaerts was a dedicated artist, equally intelligent, as strong mentally as physically, preparing himself psychologically—as well as physically—for the role of Jacky Vanmarsenille a full year before shooting began. After shooting on Bullhead finished, Schoenaerts began losing weight but was then cast as a boxer in Jacques Audiard's upcoming film Rust and Bone (Un goût de rouille et d'os) alongside Marion Cotillard, so now he's physically preparing for that role. Schoenaerts swears that after Rust and Bone he will be done with bodybuilding and will stop eating.
As to whether it was Jacky's childhood abuse or his testosterone abuse that accounted for his violent and unpredictable behavior, Roskam qualified it was both. "Some people can go crazy for less," he explained, noting that Jacky's childhood trauma was something he had to fight his whole life; the implications of which—especially as a child—he couldn't fully understand. The psychological problems from such a childhood trauma could only grow and develop as Jacky physically grew and developed. By that point he was struggling for solutions and, of course, often a person will try to find solutions by themselves instead of going to someone who might be better trained to assist. Those self-medicating solutions are often the worst solutions because they're compensating for behavior, but end up exacerbating behavior. It doubles on itself. One feeds the other. An action / reaction. Emphasizing that hormones are one of the most important elements of the human system, and that it's not completely understood how they work, Roskam argued that it stands to follow that they should not be messed with. It's already been proven that many people abusing testosterone experience problems with identity and personality.
A visual parallel was drawn between Jacky's body, especially his neck and shoulders, and the scene where the cattle were being herded out of the corral. "The thing is that they are artefacts, so to speak," Roskam explained. The animals are a particular breed, the Belgian Blue, nicknamed "Big Butts", a breed of cattle that have been genetically modified over time for the food industry. They're given growth hormones to increase their volume and weight. They're already born with an increased muscle mass and a bull who has been receving hormone treatments would have to be placed next to one who hasn't been in order to see the difference; but, it's an increase of almost 100 kilograms. The herd in this particular scene were not, of course, treated with hormones because, again, that's illegal and he would never be allowed to film them. Still, already, they are huge in mass. Roskam joked that if he tried to film a hormonally-altered herd, he would probably receive a bullet in his mailbox as a warning to desist. The fact that these Belgian Blues have been genetically modified over time to have a sculpted, heavily muscled appearance is known as "double muscling" and accounts for why Caesarean sections are performed on neonatal calves—the calves are so large that they block the birth canal—yet Caesarean section is the normal form of delivery for the Belgian Blue and that's why he included a scene of same in his film.
Since he mentioned the bullet in the mailbox, Roskam was asked if he had experienced any backlash from the hormone mafia? "No," he answered, though while he was doing his research, he was a bit concerned about retaliation; but, a friend of his who had a good position in law enforcement kept track of whether or not his name was showing up anywhere. Further, he announced early on when discussing the project to the Belgian press that Bullhead would be a fictionalized narrative, more of a gangster movie, a thriller, and that his film didn't intend to vilify or expose the meat industry. As Van Langendonck had mentioned in his introduction, the hormone mafia killed a veterinarian inspector back in the '90s who had exposed the industry to the legal authorities. The mafia learned their lesson from that mistake because—though from a moral point of view it's bad to kill people—it's also bad for business to kill people; they expose themselves.
As to whether the illegal use of hormones is ongoing, Roskam affirmed that, yes, it still goes on but the meat industry as a whole is much more careful and sophisticated now in how this is done. The bulls still grow big fast, comparable to the controversy of atheletes using steroids in sports, but the law requires evidence. They need to find and name the kind of product that's in the blood, otherwise it's not a felony or a crime. They can see that there's a disturbance, but they can't name it and—once they have identified it—the hormone mafia have already moved on to a new cocktail. It's changing all the time with the law chasing them and never catching up. They can't do anything about it. Still, Roskam qualified, this is a minority activity. In the past all the farmers were involved because it wasn't seen as much of a crime. At the end, it's just an opinion whether growth hormones are still legal in the United States. In Europe, it's still illegal and it's just a matter of where you draw the line. Some say it's not healthy. Some say there's no proof, which Roskam posed might actually be true. In the long term, it can't yet be proven that beef injected with hormones are dangerous for human consumption; but, without knowing, perhaps it's better not to use them? That being said, Roskam opined that he feels they could be used under controlled conditions, as long as the consumer knows what hormones are being used. He prefers eating a steak in the States from cattle that have been given identified hormones than those in Europe where he doesn't know what's been pumped into the meat.
My question to Roskam was to speak to the tension between the visual style of the film, its physicality, and Raf Keunen's elevated score. Along with the actors and his DoP, Roskam has worked with Keunen before. All of them are close friends and have been part of the project from the very beginning. When Roskam talked about the script to Keunen, he was already playing themes on the piano. They communicated a lot on what music would work for each sequence and decided early on that they wanted to use the music like a character in the film, or more like "an emotional spirit" informing the film and guiding the audience to understand Jacky's emotional torment within an abbreviated period of time. "That's the power of music," Roskam asserted. Though not ordinarily done, Roskam asked his producer for a three-month break after he finished the final cut of the film specifically so Keunen could compose the music. Once he had the music, Roskam then went back to the editing room to shape the film with the use of the music. He termed it "an equal combination of two crafts."
As to why the characters within the film had trouble communicating with each other, Roskam explained that there is no official "Belgian" language, per se, and that instead Belgium has two languages: Flemish—which is similar to Dutch and distinguished by accentuation, much like the distinction between British and American English—and the Walloons, who are French-speaking. For complicated historical reasons, most of the time the Flemish speak French whereas the French don't speak Flemish. This is changing but remains the current reality. Roskam grew up in the same region as Jacky's farm, which is close to what they call "the linguistic border" where one side is Flemish-speaking and the other side (to the South) is French-speaking. When he was growing up, his family lived closer to the big French-speaking city than the Flemish-speaking cities so—when they wanted to shop at an urban shopping mall, for example—they went to the French-speaking city, which accounted for their familiarity with French. This holds especially true for the slaughter industry, which is largely situated at this linguistic border. Thus, it's realistic that Jacky should speak French to conduct business and also explains why his French love interest Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy) doesn't always understand him when he stops speaking French and reverts to Flemish, especially when he gets emotional at the end of the film and starts to speak in his own dialect. This obstacle of communication symbolizes the sensitivity of Belgium's political conflict where—after a recent election—Belgium had no government for nearly 500 days. Roskam decided to portray this lack of communication in his film because it's a real issue in his country. This brave aspect of the film was noted by Variety correspondent Ian Mundell who wrote that the mixing of Flemish- and French-speaking characters made for "a rare example of a story straddling Belgium's main language communities." It was only afterwards, however, that Roskam realized he probably should have distinguished the languages with French subtitles to make this issue less confusing to English-speaking audiences.
Asked to explain why he configured Jacky's childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) as a gay character, Roskam detailed that in earlier versions of the script Diederik was not gay. As he developed the story and incorporated the characters of the cops that were interacting with Diederik, he wanted one of the cops to use her charms and seduce Diederik to solicit information; but, that struck him as a cliché that he had seen in movies countless times. It was actually Roskam's wife who suggested that Diederik should be gay so that a male cop would seduce him for information. Suddenly the script gained metaphorical force and weight and the character of Diederik became more interesting and somehow "new" because now, like Jacky, Diederik had his own internal obstacles to fight. Diederik is in an environment that is not gay-friendly so he has to hide who he is and pretend, which makes his character more realistic, complicated, and perhaps important because, clearly, it's still not easy for gay people. But he wanted to add this element in a just-so fashion, to place it in the narrative without making the film be about a gay guy in a gangster environment. "He's just gay; that's it." Further, this makes the relationship between the two boys even more nuanced and poetic. They were friends and then they grew up and drifted apart, not only because of their shared experience of trauma, but because of their orientations.
Roskam was asked if Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo had any influence on the film's final sequence when Jacky, pumped up on testosterone, descends the stairs? Roskam admitted that while they were developing their shots, they named that sequence the Hitchcock shot. Especially after they found the location and saw the stairs. Originally, he had another concept in mind; but, shifted gears when he found the stairwell. Along with the Hitchcock shot, they had a Terrence Mallick shot where grass was waving in the wind, and a Michael Mann shot; all the big guys entered his film, more than he could even name.
With the final image of the film being the close-up of Jacky as a young boy staring at the camera for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, and then the music finally calming down and the screen going to black, Roskam adhered his editing to the music, which decided the prolongation of the shot. He decided to cut the shot at the moment the wind lifted Jacky's hair. His editor Alain Dessauvage argued the shot was too long but Roskam insisted, "No, the wind, the wind." He felt the beats were better if they waited a bit longer and this convinced Dessauvage.
Of Related Interest: Bay Area audiences will have a chance to view Roskam's celebrated debut when Bullhead screens at SF IndieFest. At their press conference, I was surprised that no mention was even made of, perhaps, the most important headliner in their program; a significant omission.