March 27, 2012
The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne work in a world of efficient drama. Their cinema is stripped of sentimentality yet still captures intimate moments with powerful focus that stays with a viewer long after leaving the cinema. Their spare films are experiences that stick like solid memories. You know when you have seen a Dardenne film. Characters suffer ordeals or undergo life changes that feel visceral and personal. Sometimes they are subtle (the titular character of Rosetta  undergoes a glimmer of change that may or may not help her rise out of a downtrodden life in a trailer park). Other times they are more dramatic (the main character of Lorna’s Silence  finds the strength and cunning to free herself from a world that could be considered modern slavery).
The Dardennes have a consistent style. Simple, sudden splices separate the scenes. There are no fades, overlaps or dissolves. Everything is shot on handheld high-definition digital cameras. There are no dramatic singular shots like swoops, zooms or close-ups. The soundtrack generally avoids non-diegetic music. When such music does appear, it stands out with potent purpose. Lighting seems natural and unfiltered. The actors have a natural style, and the Dardennes have been known to work with non-stars or non-actors. The brothers have never strayed from this style over the years. In fact, they have only perfected and fine-tuned it. The mix of these techniques effectively capture a austerity where only the drama of the situations influence the audience in an authentic and honest manner.
All the action that unfolds in a film by the Dardennes never feels superfluous. They build up the scenes with such efficiency that when the last few scenes arrive toward the end of the film, the balance of suspense fills you with anticipation. You begin to trust the Dardennes on an almost subconscious level. If a character goes off to do something seemingly banal, you know it will have to serve the story in some way. No moment is wasted in a film by this duo.
None of the Dardenne films I have seen have felt more tight and focused than the Kid With a Bike, which only now finally finds a distributor in IFC Films after sharing the 2011 Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) on his quest for a father figure after his biological father (Jérémie Renier) leaves him at a boarding school. The insistent quality of this little boy is smartly established at the start of the film when he refuses to give up listening to an out-of-service message on the phone, as a school counselor pleads him to hang up the receiver.
Cyril feels kinetic, even while laying in bed. He always seems breathless. He’s a steadfast creature. When the neighborhood drug dealer Wesker (Egon Di Mateo) names him “pitbull” the name seems apt. The kid fights for his bike, his final connection to his AWOL father, with unrelenting zeal. Wesker preys on this fatherless child, inviting him to video games and soda at his apartment and soon devises a scheme that will harness this child’s peculiar energy. It’s an energy and drive familiar to many who are preyed on to enter gangs at young ages. The purpose in Cyril to impress a male figure in his life is so strong, it transcends criminal activity. He does not even care for a cut of the take from Wesker, telling him he’s only doing it for him because he told him to do it.
The boy is in deep pain, which comes out in equal parts aggression and aloofness, when it’s not focused on impressing Wesker or during the quiet bliss in the all too brief company of his actual father. On the receiving end of most of this misguided aggression is the boy’s foster mother, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France). She hesitantly agrees to take Cyril in after helping the boy find his missing bike at the start of the film. He imposes himself on her, asking if she might see him on weekends. She cannot seem to help herself from saying “no.” She even helps Cyril track down his father, who only sees the boy as a burden he does not want. The film is as much about this woman’s courage to step in when the boy’s father decides to take the easy way out to “start over.”
Though the Kid With a Bike is the Dardennes’ tightest film, I have not seen them ever compromise their style for a pat ending. Though the boy seems to find some kind of peace at the film’s end, the Dardennes do not hold back throwing a monkey wrench into the story with a powerful finale that leaves the viewer wondering. The open-endedness of their films is also key to their style defined by their lo-fi cinematic style. The rawness of their movies seek to capture the sensation of true-life experience. Just as life goes on after one completes a phase in growth (however big or small that experience might feel), thus it goes on after the final fade to black in a Dardenne film. Just as you never know what might happen next with every moment in life, you never get luxuriated with the promise of a tidy ending in a Dardenne film. Life goes on and who knows what is next? Bring on another Dardenne film.
The Kid With a Bike is not rated, runs 87 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens in Miami Beach Friday, Apr. 6, at 6:45 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It will play a series of dates as part of the theater’s on-going series “Les Freres Dardennes.” The series also includes one-night-only screenings of the above mentioned Rosetta (Thursday, March 29, at 8 p.m.) and L’Enfant, which also stars Jérémie Renier (Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.). The Kid With a Bike also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, Apr. 6, at 7 p.m. and to the north, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, also on Apr. 6, but at 6 p.m.
The notion of love is a slippery thing, and the Deep Blue Sea, captures its elusive sensation with a visual patchwork of evocative and dramatic scenes that forgoes exaggerated set-ups like fancy weddings and over-the-top situations. Too often Hollywood celebrates contrived situations like the Vow* to conveniently tell a story of people in love. How about something more expressive, abstract and complex, like the sublime experience itself? Director Terence Davies subverts traditional storytelling with his latest and captures not just people in love, but people who love but never click. I’ll go out on a limb and say no one has done this better since Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love. By defying a straight forward narrative and working in expressive, almost photographic collage, Davies recreates something more beholden to a feeling than most films with lovers at its center.
We meet Hester (Rachel Weisz) at the height of her most passionate moment in love. She is about to kill herself. The viewer has to work to put the pieces together, as the situation leading up to this moment unfolds in a patchwork of flashbacks. In fact, a second viewing of the Deep Blue Sea will probably prove more satisfying than the first. Though the film has its dramatic moments, Davies’ loose, flowing work captures experience in retrospect, similar to our own recollection of jumbled memories. In effect, offering a more human connection to the audience better than a straight-up narrative would ever achieve.
The film opens with pure evocation. A simple blue light spreading over a dark screen, as if coming up from the dark depths of the ocean. As the credits unfold in simple, swelling white block letters, the blue light gradually emerges** Davies seems to be offering the abstract representation of love entering one’s life. It’s a minimalist version of how the world seems to feel a little brighter, more Technicolor, when a new love appears. Opening credits do matter (see yesterday’s review), and not enough filmmakers use them nowadays.
When the neighborhood Hester lives in fades in from the darkness of this opening sequence, it almost appears alien. A series of streaming lights from a tangle of weeds seem so unreal it may as well be fairies dancing out of the dark. As the filtered camera lens lethargically pans left, the title card “LONDON” appears, followed by “AROUND 1950,” as it becomes apparent that this is a late-night suburban street scene. The camera continues its sluggish movement into a window where Hester stands. There is a blue and gold tint to everything, giving the interior of Hester’s apartment an unreal glow. The camera does not follow her as she goes through the motions of preparing for her own demise. She closes the curtains, fade. She bolts the door, fade. She puts a towel at the bottom of the door, fade. And so forth. These are key moments, as if recalled, whatever footsteps in between forgotten to lost, superfluous time. Before she lies down, a diamond-shaped mirror with roses intricately painted on its surface catches her face. The reflection stands out among the busy detritus that fills the apartment. Already the consistently beautiful shots recall a sense of In the Mood For Love. Whoever is playing a violin during the accompanying score (Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14″) is not holding back, as the stringed instrument seems to scream and howl after Hester turns on the gas, and the film fades to another time and another place.
Following another fade out, the tone of the images grow more subdued and flat, dominated by the plainness of brown and darkness. We see Hester again, dressed differently, sitting in a plush chair inside a study, half-smiling to her husband William (Simon Russell Beale), who sits behind a desk. When he is not looking, she tears up. We know she is not thinking of him during this attempt on her life. Fade. Hester is sitting outdoors on a patio bench, on a bright, sunny day. Everything shimmers in soft focus, and the scene seems dominated by an incandescent white. A debonair looking man, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston, who recalls Michael Fassbender) smiles at her. We will later learn he becomes the man who has taken her heart.
More scenes unfold, jumping here and there through time and space. The link between them is a magnetism between the people or a pushing away. There are efficient moments of dialogue with little context. What provides more information comes from Davies’ visual prowess: the framed shots of Hester and Freddie, smiling at each other. He chatting close to her face, and she taking it in. Meanwhile, William and Hester walk separate ways and are never shot without something between them. The best obstacle being William’s mother (Barbara Jefford bringing on the mean old lady). On one of the few occasions the husband and wife face each other, it’s at a dinner table with the mother passive-aggressively offering such tidbits like “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly … A guarded enthusiasm is much safer.”
But would the film be more interesting taking a safe path? In the end, lust does die out, and Freddie becomes more than the cypher that wedged itself between the married couple. He is the product of war, a topic often explored by Davies. When we meet him early on, he talks of the “excitement and fear” of battle. “There is nothing like it,” he says. He will never find that kind of passion in this downtrodden wife, and the broken triangle, elegantly but tragically creeks forward. Mirrors often appear in the movie, a nice cinematic touch referring to false perceptions, and as the knots tangle and ultimately break, Davies dives in with unrelentingly gorgeous takes. The actors are captured at their most passionate moments. It’s not what they do, but how they do it. That simple early shot of Weisz in the study, turning a delicate, forced smile to quiet tears captures the profound sadness that is this tragic story.
The Deep Blue Sea is not a fun film, but it is an honest one… and beautifully shot. Davies, who happens to be a gay man raised in 1950s post-war England, captures not only this difficult form of love expertly but also the era. Love is a powerful feeling and few films can capture that power as well as this movie. Too often writers have to cook up stories that falsely try to represent the feeling. It’s a sublime experience that demands a sublime touch, you’ll find that in the Deep Blue Sea.
*Yes, I know the Vow is based on a true story, but leave it to Hollywood to adapt it into a movie. Plug in While You Were Sleeping, Serendipity or even the Twilight movies, whatever such dreck you like. It’s all the same.
The Deep Blue Sea is rated R, runs 98 min. It plays opens in South Florida Friday, Mar. 23 at an array of theaters, including:
Miami: Miami Beach Cinematheque, UM’s Bill Cosford Cinema, AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place
Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre, Boca Raton: Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood 16
Delray Beach: Movies of Delray, Regal Delray Lake Worth: Movies of Lake Worth, Jupiter: Cobb Jupiter 18
If you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Legendary Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s latest film* is a focused work of evocative black and white artistry that patiently unfolds over a two-and-half-hour run time in a primitive land, probably just before the turn of the 20th century. Before the viewer is granted the varying shades of gray that cover The Turin Horse, the ingenious filmmaker gives us truly stark black and white: Opening titles of white, Times New Roman font, which briskly fade in and out against a pitch black background during nothing but silence. When the final title disappears, the screen remains black, and a baritone voice speaks in Hungarian (the film’s native language) of a famous story regarding Friedrich Nietzsche. During a walk in Turin, he comes across a horse cart coachman beating his steed, which has halted in its tracks. Despite the cabman’s angry, incessant lashings the horse refuses to budge. Distraught at the sight, Nietzsche fell into a decade-long depression that ended only with his own death. “Of the horse we know nothing,” the enigmatic narrator adds to this legendary tale. A beat later, the image of a gray horse (Ricsi) pulling a cart against a punishing wind fills the frame, as a plaintive string section backed by a noodling organ or possibly a hurdy-gurdy, churns out a driving, tragic melody indulging in repetitive minimalism. The cart’s driver, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), is an old but hard-looking man whose black and white beard flows and undulates against the whipping wind. The naked branches of the stripped trees look like cracks against a dusty, broken, gray sky with not a cloud in sight. The shot, though unbroken by splices, constantly changes— in signature Tarr style— with the camera floating from one angle to another, panning in and out of its subjects as dust and leaves blow up from the ground, as if the land is falling apart with every passing second.
Heightening the scene further is the anticipation that builds up during the plain, text-based black and white introduction, which gives way to this image that seethes a kinetic quality where nothing is still while maintaining a stark quality. It makes for a gloriously intricate shot in its awesome minimalism, and provides a brilliant set-up to the existential journey ahead in the deceptively straight-forward film. But do not mistake minimalism and straight-forward storytelling for simplicity. Though shots are held an average length of about 10 minutes, the camera proves a restless observer, as established by the dramatic opening scene, which lasts about eight minutes. Exquisitely photographed by Fred Kelemen, the camera remains in constant motion throughout the film, rotating, tracking and floating around its subjects, picking up one brilliant angle after another.
As dynamic as the camera behaves, its subjects are sullen creatures who seem to go through the motions of life simply because they are alive. The old man and his daughter (Erika Bók) barely converse besides noticing how the world is slowly coming to a stop around them. After they dine on a single boiled potato each (and they do it several times over the course of the film, without edits, but from different views of the camera), they go their separate ways to sit in front of windows as if to watch television. They look out at the churning, dry waste, quiet and seemingly stupefied at what appears to be the never-ending disintegration of the world. After they go to bed one night, early in the film, the father notices something. “Can’t you hear them either?” he asks her, as they lie in bed off camera.
“The woodworms, they’re not doing it. I’ve heard them for 58 years. But I don’t hear them now.”
“They really have stopped. What’s it all about, papa?”
“I don’t know.”
But the active viewer has lots of space to fill in the subtext. The Turin Horse is existentialism represented as cinema. The color palette of black and white and varying shades of gray compliments the wasteland this man lives off with only his horse and daughter. They dwell in a decaying cottage on dry land with vegetation reduced to skeletal branches by the windstorm that never relents for the duration of the movie. In fact, the occasions when the musical score stops, which is the same piece that appeared with horse at the film’s opening, the ebb and flow of the wind, which only varies from harsh howls to harsher howls, provides and even more stark musical accompaniment. Everything around this man and his daughter appears weather-beaten. Any color that may have once existed has been blown away by this merciless wind.
The music by Mihály Vig complements the film elegantly. It’s churning cello offers a mournful, minor key melody, backed by the sustained hum of higher-pitched violins. Counter pointing and harmonizing with the cello is the hushed noodling of a ghostly organ that may as well have been played by Philip Glass. At times the organ part sounds so low it sometimes sounds like flutes. Get used to this minimalist but elaborate melody. Over the course of the film it fades in and out, only varying in volume and not much else. It might as well be covering the entire soundtrack, as it never seems to have a beginning and end, existing somewhere beyond the mortal lives of people. At one point, toward the film’s end, the now familiar melody appears so low that it seems almost hallucinatory.
Because the film is such a subjective experience, it would spoil the experience to describe more dramatic moments in the film. Suffice it to say that visitors do pass by the cottage to break up the monotony, including a drinking neighbor with a certain opinion on life that could resonate in today’s time. There are also lively gypsies that invite the daughter to life in America. But, in the end, the film does not cop out with any form of release or purpose for these characters. As the music drones, so do the days before what seems like a complete black out arrives, or could it be death itself? These people will never know because who knows if they were living to begin with?
*Could this be Tarr’s last film? See his answer to the final question in this “Huffington Post” interview here.
The Turin Horse is not rated, runs 146 min. and is in Hungarian with English subtitles. It plays in South Florida for one night only: Thursday, Mar. 22, at 8 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a screener DVD for the purposes of this review, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series [update: a second screening
has been added, on April 25, at 8 p.m. New date: May 17, at 8 p.m.]. If you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.
Update 2, its now on blu-ray with lots of great extras. Purchase here to support this blog.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
It has been almost 20 years since an original, hand-colored print was discovered of George Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). It took more than half that time to repair the film for screening purposes. Part of that time was just waiting for the technology to catch up to the needs required for the destroyed nitrate print. A good place to see the state of disrepair the film was found in can be found at the Technicolor Film Foundation. The restoration was deservedly painstaking. Considered the first science-fiction film in movie history, this 16-minute short from 1902 is one of the most famous of the early silent films. Original hand-colored films in those days were rare, as well. To find one made of one of the most iconic silent films in history, almost a hundred years later, marked a jackpot find.
Le Voyage dans la Lune‘s rebirth is now being celebrated with special screenings at art houses across the US. It already began visiting big screens in South Florida beginning in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, where it premiered on March 3. It will appear in Miami-Dade, finally, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, starting March 23, as part of the European Film Festival in Miami 2012. This new restoration had its world premiere at Cannes, last year.
Big for music fans, as this is a silent film, is a new score by France’s most internationally successful contemporary music duos: Air. The union might seem odd, at first, but Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel have always had a penchant for the retro, even though one might argue that even the most vintage of instruments the duo routinely incorporates could be considered modern compared to the 110-year-old film they have now scored.
Though the synth-heavy duo do not shy away from modern implements like reverbing electric guitar, sparkling organs and even ominous mellotron, there is also timpani, strings, harpsichord and even a few plucks of a banjo, which may just have well been instruments used at the turn of the 20th century. It’s all on display on this new, dynamic score that they not only fashioned for the film but also jumped off from to create songs inspired by the movie. Air mix it all together for an evocative work as good as anything in their discography. The soundtrack therefore doubles as the duo’s eighth album since their debut in 1998. Victoria Legrand, the dreamy, hushed voice of Baltimore-based Beach House, takes lead vocals on “Seven Stars.” It’s a funny coincidence that she happens to be a niece of the famed French composer Michel Legrand. His songs appeared in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and he won an Oscar® for his work on Yentl.
This new music for Le Voyage dans la Lune fits fine in both Air’s discography, continuing its more accessible sound from their last full-length, Love 2, and to hear it accompanied by the fantastical imagery that inspired it on the big screen is a must for fans of Air. The band remains consistent, proving they know how to handle a score, just as they did with Sophia Coppola’s debut film, the Virgin Suicides.
A vinyl version is due out on April 2, and though available as an import-only, at a steeper price than usual, it should sound worthwhile. Just like Air’s last album, Love 2, it will come on heavy 180 gram vinyl in a gatefold sleeve produced by the boutique vinyl EMI subsidiary the Vinyl Factory. There is also a limited edition box set (only 300 manufactured for worldwide distribution) on higher quality 45 rpm 12-inch records that includes a signed art print by the duo. But all versions of the album include the newly restored color version of Le Voyage dans la Lune on an all-region coded DVD, which also features music exclusive to the score and not featured on the album.
These up-coming theatrical presentations will also feature something exclusive: the documentary film the Extraordinary Voyage by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lang, which spends just over an hour examining the history of this film’s restoration and impact on early impact on cinema. I have not seen this yet, but, according to Miami Beach Cinematheque’s website, it features interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Hazanavicus. It reportedly covers everything from the original film’s 1902 production to the rediscovery of the hand-colored nitrate print in 1993, and the premiere of the restoration on the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.
But the real treat will be the chance to see the 16-minute short on the big screen. Méliès practically invented the film narrative with this film using complex sets and costumes. He incorporated special effects like stop motion, and even the dissolves between cuts are credited as his invention. There is no arguing that this film deserves care and preservation. Martin Scorsese laid it out passionately in the subtext of his most recent film, Hugo, which featured Méliès as a character (played by Ben Kingsley). For me, the most amazing aspect of Hugo, were the recreations of the famous sets for Le Voyage dans la Lune, and even performances of the scenes, which unfolded in 3-D on the big screen. It was a surreal, mind-blowing delight that I had not expected to see, as the media was so busy hyping the fact that Hugo marked Scorses’s first 3-D family film.
The word “dream factory” was co-opted by Hollywood long after Méliès knew the power of cinema. In Hugo, Méliès tells the young hero of the film, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.” On his deathbed, he famously told Henri Langlois and Georges Franju, “Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.” (Henri Langlois, First Citizen of Cinema, p. 41). If I had to choose between the idealistic Méliès over the corporate machine of Hollywood, I would hand it to Méliès as the true pioneer of the dream machine now well-known as the movie projector.
The newly restored hand-colored version of Le Voyage dans la Lune and The Extraordinary Voyage will screen in high-definition digital projection, Friday night (March 23), at 7 p.m. , at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play every following night through Monday night (March 26th), at 7 p.m. each night. For other screening dates throughout the year, see Air’s official homepage on Astralwerks Records.
It was supposed to be an “Entertainment Weekly” exclusive premiere, and it even had an interview with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, now it’s just an “error page.” Who knows why Arcade Fire’s new song, “Abraham’s Daughter,” written and recorded for the Hunger Games soundtrack was deleted from the Internet, but this is the Internet, people. Nothing can be deleted for good.
I found the mp3. Download it by clicking through here:
The track is rather uneventful despite the hype (and, man, is the hype machine in high gear for everything Hunger Games). I doubt it will win over too many new fans. It’s a brooding little piece with string and hurdy-gurdy player Reginne Chassagne taking lead vocals. It seems to be all soft build-up to nothing … unless it serves as the prelude to the Kid Cudi song that follows it on the full soundtrack (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It certainly has the Arcade Fire style, but it sounds like filler. Devotees should love it just for the fact that it is now closing on two years since Arcade Fire released any new music since the Suburbs (Why Arcade Fire deserved that Grammy [February 14, 2011]).
On the theme of the song, he said, “Our whole approach was to get into the world and try to create something that serves the story and the film. There’s something in the story of Abraham and Isaac that I think resonates with the themes in the film, like sacrificing children. So we made a weird, alternate-universe version of that.”
On the writing of the song: “I tried to put myself in the headspace of how excited I’d be if this film was coming out when I was 15. I still remember hearing Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’ in [Baz Luhrmann's] ‘Romeo + Juliet’ when I was that age.”
March 1, 2012
I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).
But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.
Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.
During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.
After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.
However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.
The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.
Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.