Modern tragedy began when tragic protagonists were allowed to be inarticulate. Grief, anguish and downfall are not the exclusive preserve of princes and the poetic-tongued. On stage the defining work is Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, on screen Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. No wonder the title of Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead – a crunchingly powerful Belgian film nominated last year for Best Foreign Language Picture (it was pipped by Iran’s A Separation) – shares an iconic syllable with Scorsese’s movie. A recurring image of the taurine young farmer played by Matthias Schoenaerts (late of Rust and Bone) is of a hunched, pugilistic silhouette with ox-like shoulders, framed against the louring daylight. The world is against him; he is against the world. “Ox” proves horribly the right word when we learn, in an extended flashback, what happened to his masculinity during a savage attack by an older boy.
The film’s subject – resist your only occasion to giggle during this review – is the Flemish animal hormone mafia. Yes, it sounds Monty Python. But apparently big crime arises around this picayune-sounding crookery, whereby cattle are illicitly fattened for slaughter and sale. Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts) runs the family beef-rearing business. After a cop is killed by a gang he is embroiled with, events encircle him with his past – in an ingenious unfolding or enfolding – and Bullhead becomes dark, minatory and coruscating in ways not light-aeons distant from Büchner or Scorsese.
The Flemish are good at miserablism. Maybe Flanders, that pancake-flat plain which grey skies can turn to a scenic Purgatory on Earth, attracts despair. (Look at Frenchman Bruno Dumont’s films in this region.) Roskam allows himself some bleak comedy – two garage hands out of Beckett via Buster Keaton – amid the gathering of the storm. But the early flashback sequence is so discomforting you may want hide under the seat. And later there is the boom of the real and humanly unutterable: those kinds of discovery about oneself or others that render inarticulacy the most articulate, or expressive, of conditions. Bullhead has a fault or two in its script circuitry (corny cop scenes), but at best the electrical power is unerring and unmistakable. Sturm und Drang; thunder and lighting; love, pain and the whole damn thing.
Shocking news to report. Austerity is now carving into the once cosseted world of the big-movie press show. For the Empire, Leicester Square, screening of the Hollywood blockbuster Flight, the London-based US distributors – who on this evidence haven’t a mug left to beg coins into – herded us into a cramped, fly-blown mini-theatre off the main auditorium.
Fly-blown? Yes, that’s what I said. This is what we watched from 10.30am to 12.50pm on a Monday morning: two insects sailing to and fro across the screen, sometimes surreally enlarged by drifting close to the projection window. “Is it a tarantula? Is it a space monster?” we panicked at first, as the face of Denzel Washington, playing a disturbed alcoholic airline pilot, assumed a fidgety Rorschach blotch, or as similar blots and splots kept landing on the pretty substance-abuser he falls for (Kelly Reilly), after he is grounded in the Deep South sticks.
Poor Paramount, poor Hollywood-on-Thames. Unlike Starbucks, Amazon and Co, they probably pay their UK taxes, thereby pauperising themselves. As the press screening danced on through its long bluebottle jihad, I doubt we missed much. The first hour has an exciting air crash. The rest of this moral-uplift mega-drama, which climactically calls on God, justice, catharsis and the ghost of Humphrey Bogart – Denzel Washington with his half-lisp and skill at the stellarly distraught is a dead ringer for Bogie in The Caine Mutiny – would be a struggle even without the participation of the insect community.
The week’s other screenings took place, happily, in no-fly zones. Hyde Park on Hudson resounds to the noise only of off-screen summer insects – or night crickets – as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray with pince-nez and a brave stab at FDR’s orotund singsong) entertains the great and the ladies – two distinct constituencies, we learn, with divided functions – in his and his mother’s palatial pad in upstate New York.
No celebrated person remains gossip-proof, even, or especially, after death. Poor Franklin’s only peccatum – avers screenwriter Richard Nelson – was a hideaway for willing women friends who acted as, ahem, handmaidens to a polio victim’s humble sensual needs. (Eleanor apparently didn’t provide this service.) When not outsourcing the sin of Onan the president hosted George VI (Samuel West) and his queen, extending tea and sympathy to the couple with whom he would soon share a world war. The film tinkles on affably, never quite sure of its focus but civilised, gentle, prettily-mannered.
None of that for Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head. A week after Arnold Schwarzenegger returns from the all-but-dead, here is the other monstre sacré of yesteryear’s machismo cinema. He looks like a traffic accident victim after emergency cosmetic repair. The face is puffy, the hair not his own, the complexion rouge-dabbed. He resembles less a hero/avenger, at times, more a geisha grandpa. The voice is still a phenomenon, though: that seat-rumbling basso slur that can make Robert Mitchum sound like Alvin Chipmunk.
The film has a plot, but you have to work at it. Better just to watch the surreal ballet of this Methuselah super-hunk “acting” everyone off the screen by sheer effect of his lunatic personality force. Walter Hill, a once estimable director (Hard Times, The Long Riders) and writer (The Getaway), cannot turn junk to jewellery. But star quality, however weird, glitters in all conditions.
Antiviral gives a new meaning to the phrase “celebrity culture”. What if a celebrity had his or her illness stolen and “cultured” – and then injected by a rogue clinic into a willing, paying fan? Would you like Bruce Willis’s cough? Julia Roberts’s sniffles? ... This idea was dreamt up by David Cronenberg’s son. Brandon Cronenberg has crafted a body-horror futurist fantasy in the mould of dad’s best early work (Rabid, Videodrome), before the latter ossified into dead-zone literary adaptation (A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis).
For all its “yeugh” content, Antiviral is patchily enthralling. Watching the first dozen needles enter flesh in giant close-up, I started feeling as ill as the characters. But there is a logic to this martyrdom-for-love idea. It takes only one upper-case letter, after all, to turn passion into Passion. And aren’t all pathological celebrity worshippers on the road to a Calvary where their egos can be crucified for their god or goddess?
The hero here is played with eerie pallor and angular body work by newcomer-to-me Caleb Landry Jones. He has said, and I believe him, that he modelled his performance partly on Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. He has all the right moves. Probably he found a real cabinet containing a real hypodermic with a real and active Veidt Virus.