Saturday, June 7, 2008

In Bruges

Warning: mild spoiler. After spending a weekend in Winchester with two bored teenage boys, watching the first half of Martin McDonagh's brilliant film In Bruges was like experiencing déjà vu. In the film, two Irish hit men, Ken and Ray (Brendon Gleeson and Colin Farrell), have been sent to the storybook medieval city of Bruges to cool their heels after a job gone tragically wrong. The more thoughtful and mature Ken wants to spend his time in Bruges quietly sightseeing, but young Ray is bored with the medieval churches and gingerbread houses along the picturesque canals of Bruges. Bored and haunted by what he's done. The film is an odd and effective mix of dark comedy, travelogue, and blood-drenched violence, touching on serious themes of damnation and redemption. In one crucial scene, Ken and Ray are in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, mesmerized by Heironymus Bosch's surreal painting of the Last Judgment. In the end, the film becomes a kind of reenactment of Bosch's painting, as art and life, illusion and reality collide. Bruges is a perfect fairytale setting for the film. McDonagh, who also wrote the brilliant play The Pillowman, is well aware that fairy tales are often bloody and violent. McDonagh's film is, in some senses, Brothers Grimm meet Brothers Coen.

Bruges was the cradle of the Flemish school of painting, and the city where William Caxton in the fifteenth century printed the first book in English on his new printing press. Bruges was also the scene of a bloody massacre of French soldiers in the fourteenth century. Culture and violence walked side by side on those picturesque cobbled streets.

Some American moviegoers have taken offense at the stereotypical portrayal of elephantine American tourists in the film. Some Belgians have taken offense at the fact that the Belgians in the film are played by French actors. But McDonagh, with his background in theater, seems to be having fun with the idea of playacting, of mistaking image for reality and surface for substance. In the first half of the film, we hear the profanity-spewing Cockney voice of Harry, Ken and Ray's boss, on the phone; when we finally see Harry, we see that the voice belongs to the usually urbane Ralph Fiennes. And watch for Slovenian-born, British-trained, American actor Zeljko Ivanek in the film. McDonagh's Bruges is a storybook global village where stereotypes flourish, but often prove deceptive.

The film has a hauntingly beautiful score provided by Carter Burwell, who—surely no coincidence—has scored most of the Coen Brothers' films, including No Country for Old Men. The delicate piano score calls to mind the gracefully off-kilter piano pieces of Erik Satie, adding to the film's haunting and surreal atmosphere.

2 comments:

Bleeet said...

Thank you for reminding me that I've want to see this movie. I've heard many great things about it, though your review is probably the best written one I've read.

Bleeet said...

"I've wanted"... my typo...

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