Posts Tagged ‘Matthias Schoenaerts’

Bullhead couldn’t have picked a more topical time to hit UK cinemas. The current media swarm surrounding the horse meat scandal, with countless foreign suppliers coming under new scrutiny, lends this Belgium thriller a pertinent hook. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s film has taken a couple of years to finally find release in the UK, but its timing couldn’t be snappier.

The horse meat story has awakened the general public to a little covered subject, and Bullhead threatens to do the same. Set in rural Belgium, the film immerses itself in the world of illegal cattle breeding; the stock are injected with hormones to speed up the process and make them fattier for consumption. The Vanmarsenilles are a farming family who rely on this shady practice for their livelihood, led by the hulking Jacky, one of two sons. In the second sequence we follow his trip to intimidate a local farmer who wants out. Jacky’s tetchy, menacing presence is evident, the message clear to the viewer; cattle farming is serious business.

Jacky is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who brings his monstrous physicality from Rust and Bone to the fore again. Schoenaerts is singling himself out as a unique actor, someone able to terrify the audience while demonstrating a naked vulnerability. While his brother has a young family to protect, Jacky is left to the seedier side of the family business. One of his accomplices, a veterinarian, suggests a lucrative deal with a West Flemish beef trader, new territory for their low key set up. Jacky is apprehensive; the murder of a detective investigating the meat mafia hangs over them, and he thinks they should lay low. Furthermore, an unwelcome face from the past crops up in the trader’s gang.

Bullhead is not your typical mafia drama. For one, the location and subject lends the film a fresh take on a tired genre. The opening shot is a strikingly beautiful image of a woodland dawn, overlaid with Jacky’s blunt and poetic voice over. Roskam immediately announces this as a film that cherishes character and soul as much as the unsavoury trappings of the genre. There is a complex plot, things start to go awry, violence punctuates the landscape and the protagonist is a bullish hothead with an uncompromising taste for blood. Yet, this is no ScarfaceRoskam makes sure the audience never strays from Jacky’s tormented plight, revealing his past demons through a series of flashbacks.

It is these flashbacks which elevate Bullhead above its gangster peers. Often derided as a clumsy expository device, here they add much needed context to Jacky’s current physical and mental state. One particular sequence will leave the male audience members with nightmares for months. Like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, we see how past events can profoundly affect the present. The film is also remarkable in that it is the feature debut of writer-director Roskam. Not since the Antipodean blitz of Snowtown and Animal Kingdom has a debutante steered a thriller with so much confidence and verve.

Perhaps the only false move comes at the finale; a slightly dubious move into buddy movie territory derails the focus on Jacky’s doomed plight, and edges towards a predictable climax. Up to that point  however, Roskam has the audience wrapped around his finger, conjuring a tale blessed with brutality and tenderness. An offbeat subject matter introduced to punchy character drama, with a smattering of violence. Bullhead marks out Roskam as a talent, and further demonstrates Schoenaerts as a muscular new acting force.

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French director Jacques Audiard came to international prominence with his film A Beat That My Heart Skipped and furthered his reputation with 2009’s A Prophet, which topped many an end of year list. Both of those films shared Audiard’s customary documentary-style observation and moments of flair, with strong central performances depicting seedy and flawed existences. Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim both played characters wrapped up in the darkness of the underworld, fighting to escape, in Duris’ case, or flourish, in Rahim’s.

His sixth feature, Rust and Bone, follows in a similar vein. Based on author Craig Davidson’s short story, the film revolves around Alain’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) tumultuous relationship with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Both of these characters find themselves at the fringes of society; Alain is a no-nonsense tough guy, floating from job to job while trying to care for his young son, while Stephanie’s life as a whale trainer has been swept away by a freak accident that leaves her an amputee. Through a chance meeting, the odd couple find each other and discover solace in their existence as society’s underdogs.

Rust and Bone is not a typical romance story. There are moments of brutality, and the whole film is injected with a raw, frayed undertone. Alain, for his part, seems only able to express himself through aggression. He can only control his young son through mild threat and criticism, and with Stephanie, his love interest, he is only capable of bluntness rather than tenderness. He only really comes alive when he is reunited with his past career as a kick boxer, but this time in rural locales with illegal betting. After one swift fight in which he dismisses an opponent, he careers off into a run in order to burn up the remaining aggression in himself.

Stephanie is a much more grounded individual; a steady job as a trainer in a local water park attraction, she seems to revel in her alternate existence in the water. Like Romain Duris’ piano playing in ABTMHS or Alain’s fighting, Stephanie’s escape is the water. When she finds this life taken away from her, she struggles to adapt to everyday existence as an amputee. She is a much more sensitive, humane person than Alain, but finds his matter of fact talk comforting when she finds herself in a sensitive situation. By this point in the story, they both need each other. Will Stephanie ever be able to tame Alain though? That is the active question that Audiard leaves us with.

Like his previous films, Audiard’s latest is characterised by the towering central performances. Schoenaerts is uncompromisingly lunk headed and thuggish, but still retains a flawed humanity. His physicality is frightening, and he remains a constant source of threat. Cotillard is superb as the emotionally and physically wounded Stephanie. She has the emotional range to exhibit the hurt of isolation and need, without resorting to hysterics. With much of her Hollywood work she has seemed uncomfortable and displaced, and this film questions whether she would be much better served working in her native country.

Although there are a few nicely composed images in this film, it is strange that Audiard is often noted as a stylist. His work appears much more in line with the observational documentary style of  Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers (both of whom focus on marginalised characters). There are moments of flair in the choreographed fights and pop soundtrack, but overall this is a gritty, raw piece of work driven by flawed characters and their arcs.

Rust and Bone is a punchy, gutsy character drama with superb performances. The relationship between the two players is both original and touching, offbeat and uncompromising. Audiard makes the audience believe in something initially far fetched and grips us all the way to the denouement. It falls a little short of his two previous films, particularly A Prophet, perhaps because it is missing the sense of epic scale that that prison drama had. While Alain has a distinctive arc, Stephanie’s is less certain.

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