Entertainment & Arts

Bullhead: Oscar contender rooted in real Belgian murder

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Media captionBullhead's director, Michael Roskam and leading man, Matthias Schoenaerts, on the Oscar nomination

A Belgian crime drama about gangsters and farmers, set against the backdrop of a cattle hormone Mafia has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at next week's Oscars. At the root of it is a real-life story of the murder of a veterinary inspector 17 years ago.

Bullhead, set in Belgium's bucolic south Limburg region, tells the story of Jacky, a young cattle farmer with a violent rage and a dark secret from his childhood.

In Belgium itself it's already a big hit. The plot resonates with cinema-goers there because of the infamous murder in February 1995 of government meat inspector Karel Van Noppen.

"It was the first mafia murder in this country," says Jose Masschelin, a crime reporter with Het Laatste Nieuws, who covered the murder.

"It had a big impact," he tells the BBC. "People were shocked by it. They were shocked that a meat inspector could be killed just for doing his job.

"Van Noppen's dream was to create a society without hormones. There was a problem of corruption and he was the only one who was not corrupted by the meat industry."

Van Noppen had conducted lab tests on beef from some Belgian farms, and found that it contained growth hormones that were potentially carcinogenic, Masschelin says. He was about to blow the whistle when he was killed.

"After Van Noppen was killed the government changed the system. Before that every farmer used hormones and that has changed."

The gunman, Albert Barrez, and three other men were given long jail sentences for murder in 2002. But all but one of them have since been released.

"The story has stuck in a lot of people's memories here, especially the stuff about hormones and cows, but people didn't realise it was organised crime," says producer Bart Van Langendonck, who worked with director Michael Roskam on several short films before Bullhead.

Image caption Matthias Schoenaerts bulked up with 27kg of muscle to play the part

"Michael wanted to make his first feature a film noir and he was looking for an existing crime milieu. We don't have a big mafia here, we don't have The Sopranos here."

The pair had been discussing the hormone mafia idea for several years while trying to sort out financing for the film. Roskam himself wrote the script over a five-year period.

"He kept rewriting the script and sending it to me. We never described it as a thriller, which gave us a problem when it came to the financing because they'd want to know if it was a thriller or a personal drama."

Eventually they got the 2m euros (£1.6m, $2.6m) needed to make the film, but Van Langendonck is still wary of pigeonholing it in a specific genre.

"We call it a crime tragedy. It's a farm noir.

"Part of the reason for its success domestically is it's a story which has grown from the Belgian soil. You can smell the farmyard.

"Michael is from the region where it's set... The Van Noppen shooting happened a bit further north. But it was just part of the idea for the plot. The rest of it is fictionalised."

The country is famous for its Belgian blue cows, which have been bred for centuries and are naturally extremely muscular. It is not unheard of for one to weigh in at 1,300kg (2,900lbs).

But to grow to that size takes several years, hence the temptation to use growth hormones, which are illegal in the European Union.

Jacky is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, whose performance has won him rave reviews and a part opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust & Bone, the next movie by French director Jacques Audiard.

The 34-year-old bulked up by putting on 27kg (four stone) of muscle to play the part of Jacky, who injects himself with testosterone. It was a feat matching Robert De Niro's when he took on the role of Jake La Motta in the 1980 boxing classic Raging Bull and put on a similar amount of weight.

"It was just an enormous amount of weightlifting. You could even call it bodybuilding. Working out two times a day, six times a week and eating, sleeping, training, and fantasising about this script," Schoenaerts told the Firstshowing.net website.

"The physical appearance was very important to the plot. It's not the main aspect. To me the main aspect was the vulnerability, but I thought if I managed to get this physical appearance then to me, as an actor, emotionally I can concentrate on the vulnerable part, because I have this physical presence that evokes all this brutality."

Van Langendonck says: "Jacky is portrayed through flashbacks as a child 20 years ago. Something terrible happened to him which explains why he has become such a freaky and violent man. Once people understand that they empathise with him and are quite moved.

"It's an amazing performance. At times in the film he moves like a bull, he actually looks like a bull. There is a real buzz around Matthias now. People have been chasing after him in the streets."

The film has been sold to Germany, Austria and France as well as the arthouse circuit in the US, but has yet to find a distributor in the UK.

Van Langendonck and Roskam are already working on new projects, one of which is a caper called The Faithful, based on 1980s Belgian gangster and prison escapologist Patrick Haemers.

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