Rust And Bone bruiser Matthias Schoenaerts is our tragic guide to the crazy world of the Flemish bovine hormone black market. Not as fun as it sounds…
Beginning with the standard 'you’re fucked from cradle to grave' narration and featuring the impressive (yet ultimately unexpressive) physicality of Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust And Bone), this bucolic tragedy details the illegal hormone obsessions of Flemish cow farmers.
Shadowy, underdeveloped mafioso shout sinister proclamations across steak dinners, shots are fired and heads are smashed into cow shit, all in the name of making larger product to compete with "the Hormonic States of America." Who is involved, what they’re actually doing and how any of this could possibly be worth their trouble alternates between unclear and dull, but that’s not the only source of dramatic tension.
In what could well be the least subtle national allegory ever committed to film, an awkwardly placed, extended flashback reveals why protagonist Jacky (Schoenaerts) is obsessed with bulking up: just as he was beginning to develop sexually, his balls were irreparably smashed with a rock by a deranged French kid. (Isn’t that how we all remember those years?)
As these Walloons had a vague knowledge of his family’s nascent dealings with illegal growth hormones, the incident was reported to the authorities as an accident. Now in his thirties and nutless, Jacky bides his time by longingly staring at his brother’s wife and children, using illegal injectibles to maintain his size and stalking Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), the sister of the guy who turned him into This Monster.
Despite being a study of wounded masculinity, Gallicly toothy Lucia manages to be the most believable and well-written character: initially charmed by Jacky’s awkward silence, she quickly puts the absurd happenings behind her and tries to get away. By contrast, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s childhood friend who witnessed the beating and is now working as a police informant, is a lame caricature of a closeted homosexual, clumsily smooching every man who gets too close to him, present only for the sake of counter-example.
But what would you expect from a director whose credits include an adaptation of Hemmingway’s 'Today Is Friday'? The ineptness that permeates the script — be it in the fundamental absurdity of the story and characters, its muddled plotting or dumb denouement — is blessedly not repeated visually.
Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis is equally adept at rendering the Flemish landscape in soft, melancholy tones as he is conveying the intimacy or claustrophobia of small interior spaces. The subtlety achieved by his lighting and palette is increasingly rare on film or digital stock and breathtaking enough to warrant a second-viewing with the sound muted and subtitles off.
For all its forceful bluster, moments of silence or near-silence – as Jacky aggressively shadow-boxes nude, alone in his room, or as he sticks unlabelled needles into the flawless skin of his thighs — most compellingly evoke the dissonance and emotion of his trauma. It seems as though it’s still the strong, silent type that wins out in the end. How unfortunate.
Hey, isn’t that the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts from Rust And Bone?
It sure looks purty. Shame about the garbled story and hackneyed characterisations.
There’s not quite enough in here to justify a second sweep.