BULLHEAD’s Deadly Construction of Masculinity as Greek Tragedy


Rundskop (English title: Bullhead). 2011. Directed & Written by Michaël R. Roskam.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian, Tibo Vandenborre, Frank Lammers, Sam Louwyck, Robin Valvekens, Baudoin Wolwertz, David Murgia, Erico Salamone, Philippe Grand’Henry, Kris Cuppens, Sofie Sente, & Kristof Renson.

Waterland Film & TV / Savage Film / Eyeworks Film & TV Drama

Rated R. 129 minutes.
Crime / Drama

Michaël R. Roskam is an interesting filmmaker. His talent lies in drawing out the intense human heart of his stories. Whether it be a tale of gangsters and farmers in the Flemish Region of Belgium, or the inner workings of the little cogs in Brooklyn’s mob. He’s able, as a writer-director, to find the interesting human elements of so many different characters and their various plots.

Bullhead is loosely based on the real life murder of government livestock inspector Karel Van Noppen who’d been investigating illegal farming practices in Belgium during 1995. But what Roskam does is weave his based on a true story crime plot in through a highly emotional story of a young man whose life was indirectly altered by his own father’s involvement in the so-called “Hormone Mafia”, to a paint of tragedy.

And that’s one of best parts about Bullhead— it plays like a modern Greek tragedy, which unfolds madly, intensely, even dream-like from one minute to the next. Until finally, you’re confronted with an unexpected ending that surprises, as well as weighs down your heart. Personally, this is my all-time favourite film. Featuring one impressive transformation and central performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam proves with his first feature film that he plans on telling real stories with real stakes, real characters, and most importantly raw, honest truths at the core.
Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 3.06.39 AMObviously, Jacky directly parallels the bulls, the steroid injected cows. Only for Jacky it’s an absolute necessity. Because of his assault years ago and its results, he had to start injecting the drugs to get through puberty. In order to have a normal male life, or at least part of one, he had to take steroids. But later on Jacky tells Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) he’s always felt like the cows, those used for the meat, in that he hasn’t had the chance to protect anything – no wife, no children. This takes us back to a moment where Jacky watches his brother Stieve with his wife and child, their happiness is in stark contrast with the bleak tone of the film and the overall dreary emotional state of Jacky himself.

And this is a large part of the film as a whole: fate and the return to past events.
Like any Greek tragedy, the past always comes back to haunt the present in many ways, shapes, and forms. Even from the very beginning the structure of a Greek tragedy is present and the past is readily apparent, as the prologue speaks specifically to the film’s themes re: memory, past and how it affects the present, so on. Here’s the quote from a narrator who sounds familiar but whose character I’m still not sure of (another instance of emulating the Greeks as perhaps having a Narrator outside of the main cast feels similar to the Chorus of their tragic plays):

Sometimes in a mans life stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it.
Not to anyone, not even to themselves. Not in their head and not out loud. Not a fucking word. ‘Cause everything has somehow got stuck. There, deep in the fields, under the trees and the leaves, year after year.

Then, suddenly it all comes back. Just like that, from one day to the next. No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure: Youre always fucked.
Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time. Fucked.”

Right from this first quote, Roskam calls to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy where he writes that “[w]e are to recognize that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end— we are forced to look into the terrors of the individual existence” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche 104).
Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.14.39 AMBullhead takes on a Euripidean tragic structure, which at times imitates themes from the classical author’s The Bacchae. Because of his effective castration via assault as a young boy, Jacky is unable to execute his desire, his lust for a woman. He can build himself up and he can have the muscles, the so-called manly look, but for all that energy there’s no release. He can’t do what nature has “intended“, as he says. Therefore, like The Bacchae we see the opposing nature of man— at once a civilized being, also one that is instinctive and longs for the sensual. This inability to get physically close with a woman, because of his injury, it permeates every last aspect of Jacky’s existence.

At a bar he sees two cute girls, admiring them, but soon their boyfriends arrive, kissing hello, and this drive Jacky outside, huffing, puffing as he does like an animal. This animal-like behaviour and way of carrying himself defines Jacky – we see this through his progress in how he responds to people physically. At the start, he pushes and pokes a man with whom his family/farm operation are having a disagreement. Later, like a bull, he charges at people: he headbutts a friend that makes an offhand comment about him having “no balls“, right afterwards Jacky tries intimidating Diederik by pushing his head at him, using it almost like a battering ram the way a bull would. When Jacky goes to see a grownup Bruno, the one that caused his castration, he likewise headbutts him in the face – not hard, but tense, solid, as if goading him into a challenge of masculinity. So at all times we see that animal physicality come out of Jacky.
Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.15.41 AMScreen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.39.01 AMAnd what it all comes down to? In the world of constructed masculinity, the physical body makes a man a man. It is the sexual identity, the genitals which mark masculinity, as well as the overall power of a man. A doctor warns Jacky’s mother and father he will “never be a man” unless they start injecting him with hormones and steroids to spur on puberty, after the brutal loss of both testicles— an erection, ejaculation, these are the only things supposedly able to define him as masculine. So this moment also leaves an indelible mark on young Jacky, as he hears them talk, and registers that his manhood is judged by the presence of testicles. This basically robs Jacky completely of his manhood to hear this— his male identity is erased doubly, both physically and mentally. This is the ultimate danger of the screenplay, as Bullhead descends into savage tragedy in its final act.

Those last moments are the effect of the cause in breeding a treacherous ground built on faded notions of masculinity. A man like Jacky, whose unfortunate clash with a violent young man left him forever damaged, is driven to a terrifying fate because of the anger inherent in his injury, the harshness of the construction of masculinity on his condition. And so that desire, the lust, it builds to a point where Jacky realizes, for many reasons, he will not get the girl for which he longs. From there the Dionysian element of this tragedy bursts forth, in the most explosive of ways, bringing Bullhead to the ultimate point of no return.
Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.57.18 AMThis is a 5-star masterpiece. Michaël R. Roskam’s writing is both thrilling in terms of its crime and the noir-like tendencies, as well as it is profound on the level of Greek tragedy which I’ve suggested. Everything comes together and makes this perfection, from the wonderfully heavy cinematography to the score that makes this really feel theatrical in the best sort of dramatic ways. The entire production is flawless, to me. We’re led from one moment to the next because of a starmaking performance out of Schoenaerts. Not only did he pack on about 60 lbs naturally to beef up and make Jacky look like he’s actually on steroids, but the emotional resonance of the character is always evident— we watch Jacky lumber from one scene to the next with a swaggering gait, one that feels very similar to the steady, slow walk of the cattle he farms, and each last second Schoenaerts is onscreen his brilliance as an actor is riveting.

Roskam went on to do another solid movie, The Drop, and I hope more of this caliber will continue to emerge from his directorial/writing mind. He’s a talent that ought not go without proper attention. This movie displays so many things. Yet at the forefront is the dangerous notion of masculinity, its outdated significance, and the effects it can draw out in the most vulnerable men.

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