Remember All Creatures Great and Small, the TV show set in the idyllic pre-war Yorkshire dales? That was how I grew up imagining the lives of rural vets to be. Well, BULLHEAD is nothing like that. Indeed, just when you thought Britain had cornered the market in bleak drama (TYRANNOSAUR, DEAD MAN’S SHOES), Belgium enters the fray with a strong contender in BULLHEAD, a contemporary noir tragedy that was rightly nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign-Language Film.
Matthias Schoenaerts – so damned large and wonderful in RUST AND BONE last year – brings the beef, playing Jacky, a farmer who is approached by an unscrupulous veterinarian to make a deal with a notorious beef trader. Needless to say, things don’t work out particularly well, and Jacky is also confronted with a mysterious (and, trust me, horrendous) incident from his childhood. It’s at this point you know for sure that you’re not going to hear the phrase ‘A’noon, Mr Herriot’ ring out in a broad Yorkshire accent any time in the next couple of hours. Grim farmyards and grey skies provide an original backdrop for the thriller narrative; cold comfort can be drawn in these parts of Flanders.
In the late 1990s, a vet was murdered in Belgium after he took too great an interest in what was happening in slaughterhouses. A scheme to artificially and illegally fatten livestock was exposed, and so in turn was the dark side of the Belgian meat industry. While the film is fiction, director Michaël Roskam (who graduated in fine art as a painter – do watch out for some wonderful Francis Bacon-esque compositions of Schoenaerts throughout the film) has acknowledged that this case was an inspiration for his movie.
Nick Berry in Heartbeat it ain’t. Those taking too great an interest in the bovine goings-on are dealt with in no uncertain terms, in the style of traditional Mafia films. Not that the film is without dark humour – indeed, two hapless Walloon mechanics ‘caught up in the game’ provide the material for some sketches that remind one of something from JO NESBØ’S HEADHUNTERS. However, the overall feeling is one of pity for the solitary and tormented Jacky, lost in a haze, drugged up on the very hormones he is pumping his livestock with.
Schoenaerts, who actually filmed BULLHEAD before RUST AND BONE, is physically even bigger in this film. He spent two years bulking up for the role, apparently combining the consumption of 3,000 tons of tuna (about the same as a whale, or Japan – he basically ate Japan) and several hundred chickens with an intense workout schedule. The regime enabled him to transform himself into, well, a bullhead.
BULLHEAD screens on Tuesday 19 March.