“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”
“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody.”
In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, one of the central conflicts goes unsaid. Jake, an American veteran living in Spain, is in love with the French Lady Brett Ashley, a promiscuous divorcée. A war injury has left Jake impotent, thrusting him deep in a masculinity crisis. His inability to sexually perform means that Lady Brett will be driven to cheat, which has deeper implications than just being about sex. Surprisingly, not much is written about impotence in cinema — it remains a touchy subject, something to be worked around rather than confronted head on. Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead, a Belgian thriller about the cattle industry, is similarly about a man who suffers an injury that renders him impotent.
The muscles of Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), pumped up with bovine growth hormone, ripple and swell in an unnatural way. His body language betrays his size, though, and he has a hard time looking others in the eye. He lacks words and confidence, but he is good at being a brute. Through a series of obscured flashbacks, we come to better understand Jacky’s temperament. These chapters are both visceral and dark while their conclusion is unnaturally cruel. Shaped physically, physiologically and mentally by this moment that altered his fate, Jacky overcompensates what he lost by falling as deep into the role of a bull as possible. His body is the battleground of his mental and emotional state. Consciously or not, he sees himself trapped by both his body and the expectations upon it.
Jacky develops a crush on a woman working at a pharmacy. His interactions are awkward but endearing, as he physically tries to understate his animalistic figure. The gentleness of his movements, like a shy teenage boy still adjusting to puberty, demonstrate the tenuousness of his physicality. Jacky has spent his whole life exaggerating and modelling his body — performing his gender and strength — and once again, he finds himself in an uncomfortable relation to his own form. This gentle version is harder to maintain as he has long come to resent any part of himself that is not male and animal. He fears nothing more than to be perceived as “less-than.”
Unable to express himself through words, and unable to fulfill his desire, Jacky’s energy turns to violence, as one with confused or troubled male desires is especially prone to be aggressive. In Hollywood, unnatural desire (homosexuality, polygamy, fetishism, etc) was punished, while impotence became a representation of abnormality and psychological unrest. In both these cases, violence becomes the outlet for sexual expression. Violence and sex were blended together to signal a man or a woman with a skewed moral scale. Sexuality is not only tied to personal worth but also deeply intertwined with ideals of virtue — if you do not conform to expectations (or are unable to), you are perceived as being immoral.
Bullhead offers insight into the psyche of this character, offering an intensely subjective experience. Jacky is pitiful, and his violence borne out of pain is offered a rare opportunity for redemption. His journey of perceived masculinity is wrought with personal suffering and a dysmorphic body. The film delves deep into a troubled male psyche, emerging on the other side as a broken vision of a “good man.”
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the former film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.