Bullhead’s selection as Oscar entry causes controversy
by Aurore Engelen
19/09/2011 - The selection committee met to choose the Belgian representative for the 2012 Oscar race. Among the 18 films on the list, Bullhead [trailer, film focus] and The Kid With a Bike [trailer, film focus] were favourites, closely followed by outsider of the moment Hasta la Vista! [trailer] by Geoffrey Enthoven.
The choice of Belgium’s Oscar representative usually seems to result from a conciliatory and miraculously pertinent alternation between Flemish productions and Francophone productions: Nic Balthazar’s Ben X [trailer, film focus] was the Oscar entry for 2008, Bouli Lanners’s Eldorado [trailer] for 2009, Felix Van Groeningen’s The Misfortunates [trailer, film focus] for 2010, and Olivier Masset-Depasse’s Illegal [trailer, film focus] for 2011. So it is unsurprising that the jury in the end announced that the 2012 Oscar submission would be Bullhead, the debut film by young Flemish director Michael R. Roskam.
This is an honour for a film which has enjoyed one success after another since its release last winter: first of all success among audiences with almost 0.5m admissions in Belgium; international success with a warm reception at the Berlin Film Festival, and numerous prizes at other festivals; and finally critical success, generating enthusiasm on both sides of the linguistic border. This enthusiasm is due to the film’s compelling power, as well as the remarkable performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, in what could be described as an Oscar-worthy role.
It is therefore a logical and promising choice. However, a widely respected voice has been raised, that of Philippe Reynaert, a media figure well-known among the Belgian (Francophone) public, and head of Walloon audiovisual investment fund Wallimage. Indeed, he finds it regrettable that Bullhead has been selected. Although he championed the film (which incidentally received backing from Wallimage-Bruxellimage) on its release, he deplores the fact that the jury has overlooked the chances of the Dardenne brothers’ film, whose US distributor seemed to have maximised its chances of being among the final five nominees. In his view, this strategy, which notably included a slot at the Telluride Film Festival, coupled with Cécile de France’s recent fame after her role in Clint Eastwood’s latest film, and the film’s Cannes screening, made The Kid With a Bike a better candidate.
Obviously, while the selection of the final five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar isn’t an exact science, it is clear that certain external factors can be decisive. However, we can see that Bullhead also has some strong points which could be decisive. For a start, Schoenaerts’s performance has all the ingredients to appeal to US voters. Moreover, he will soon get a taste of the US industry, for he has been cast in the remake of Loft [trailer] shot by Erik Van Looy this summer. The very existence of this remake also underlines the US industry’s certain fondness for Flemish cinema which uses narrative codes that speak to a US audience.
Moreover, while Bullhead is clearly a Flemish film, it nonetheless casts a light on the other part of the country. The film, which incorporates Walloon characters and is partly set in Wallonia, is almost bilingual, as recently noted in US magazine Variety. Could this be seen as an interpretation of a Belgian identity on screen? If so, wouldn’t it be the ideal candidate to submit to an academy which since 2008 has awarded films with a strong national identity “as opposed to” films that have shone on the Croisette: Departure (Japan) in 2009 versus The Class [trailer, film focus] and Waltz With Bashir [trailer], The Secret in Their Eyes [trailer] (Argentina) in 2010 versus A Prophet [trailer, film focus] and The White Ribbon [trailer, film focus], In a Better World [trailer] in 2011 (Denmark) versus Biutiful [trailer].
Besides, we know that despite their talent and decisive influence in international cinema, the Dardenne brothers haven’t managed to win over the Oscars Academy. Already picked three times to represent Belgium (Rosetta in 2000, The Son [trailer] in 2004 and The Child [trailer, film focus] in 2006), they’ve never made it into the final five nominees.
In the end, on paper, it’s a case of the half-empty, half-full glass: each of the films has some strong assets to best fit with what we imagine to be the Academy’s expectations. We’ll have to wait until January 24, 2012 to see if the selection committee made the right choice.
(Translated from French)