Jacky Vanmarsenille has his testicles smashed as a young boy by one of his peers and is subjected to a series of hormonal injections for the rest of his life. Talking about a crisis of masculinity! Jacky’s concept of maleness is from this moment forth reshaped and associated purely with appearances; his need to fill the gap left by the destroyed gland urges him to experiment with new types of hormonal injections to make him appear closer to what he imagines to be a genuine man. Yet the outcome of his experiments is overblown, grotesque. The substance he takes in makes him more aggressive, agitated and emotionally unstable. Jacky compares himself with the cattle that he breeds on his farm which similarly to him is given illegal drugs to boost their mass. He calls himself a beast.
Bullhead is a gangster film which takes a very atypical approach to the usual model of the genre. It revisits the masculine drive for power and re-evaluates the meaning of a macho figure in contemporary West. The Fleming-Belgian setting makes the issue of masculine projections even more vivid. The mutual repugnance of each region is driven by the centuries-long history of violence and political rebellion and continues to heat the relations between the Francophone and Flemish Belgians to this day.
Jacky is caught in the middle of this ongoing conflict, both as a victim and a perpetrator of the wrongdoings. Betrayed by his closest friend when still a child, he is attacked and mutilated by the local Mafioso’s son, and ostracised by the local society. There is a very Shakespearian dimension to Jacky’s tragedy. His fate is determined by the surrounding social disadvantages and Jacky is unable to divert his steps from the path that leads him directly to his own doom. Just like with the bulls who are destined for the slaughter, death is the only possible way out for him.
Why was Bullhead nominated for an Oscar is a bit of a mystery – although it is a decent film, it doesn’t represent anything particularly exceptional. My theory is that the Academy has a thing for all kinds of tragic morality tales and so every year it picks a film that falls into that category... Similarly to last year’s Incendies, or The Prophet from two years ago, Bullhead tries to enquire about the “circle of violence” and its wider, social implications. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking but aesthetically conventional at the same time. I wish more risks were taken in the narrative department, but then that would probably lose the film’s chance for a nomination.