1That which instigates laughter is the evocation of occurrences and experiences that spark immediate resonance, which is why it is often alleged that comedy is the great mirror of truth. We laugh at what is real and spontaneous laughter is the ultimate acknowledgement that something rings true. In the case of black comedy, we are confronted with the darker elements of the human psyche. A whole range of issues are brought to the fore, including feelings of awkwardness, guilt, trauma, cynicism, violence and generally things that impact on us emotionally. But social issues are also brought to light, such as our readiness to form prejudices, our inclination to stereotype and our collective desire to seek separation from groups, nations or those of ethnic difference. In essence we are faced with the absurdity of what it is to be human. Martin McDonagh encapsulates this essence and his skill in projecting the latter is revealed both in his work as a playwright and as a filmmaker.
2In this paper, I will concentrate on McDonagh’s debut feature, In Bruges (2008) which received a varied, yet successful response by awarding bodies and punters alike. In Bruges first and foremost presents a universal tale of redemption and love. However, rather than exploring the film in this context, I will investigate the underlying themes that exist within a socio-political framework. I will propose that these themes, which include ethnic, class and cultural conflict ultimately reveal the fragility of social cohesion and the need for tolerance in a multicultural world. I will try to extrapolate how the political incorrectness within the film counteracts the negative force of stereotyping by deliberately engaging with extremes and addressing the issues associated with national and class strictures, thus questioning the validity and rationale behind nationalist ideologies and imagined bourgeois values. These ideas will be underpinned by theories of binarism and dualism and a proposition that McDonagh’s filmmaking reflects an essentially pluralist outlook.
3With regard to languages in European cinema, I will employ less of a didactical approach to linguistics and instead delve within the context of film language itself, exploring the way In Bruges encompasses multiple idiomatic gestures by expressing a diverse range of social and cultural markers. I will also ascertain how the filmmaker’s diasporic independence creates a refreshingly transnational feel, by representing the Irish character from a contemporary global perspective. To begin with, however, I will outline the film’s codes - its formal structure, non-diegetic aesthetic, geographical location and treatment of narrative. The application of humour in relation to Bruges, its atmosphere, art and architecture will also be considered and McDonagh’s use of violence will be discussed within the vein of self-reflexivity and the absurd.
- 1 Similarities between Don't Look Now (set in Venice) and In Bruges include canals, gothic architectu (...)
4Set in Bruges, Belgium, McDonagh presents the picturesque town as the unlikely backdrop to a scenario where two Dubliners, a London cockney, an American actor and a couple of Belgian criminals become embroiled in an emotionally-charged, convoluted and hilarious set of circumstances. The two main protagonists, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have been sent to Bruges on a job by their London hit-man boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and have been ordered to wait there for further instructions. While they wait, Ken gladly familiarizes himself with the cultural aspects of the town. Ray, on the other hand, preoccupied with evading the guilt of his first failed job assignment, in which he mistakenly shot a child, focuses on consuming as much drugs and alcohol as he can and strikes up a romance with Chloё (Clémence Poésy). Chloё is a Belgian drug-dealer disguised as a production assistant working on a Dutch film featuring an American dwarf (Jordan Prentice). The section being shot during the narrative of In Bruges is a dream sequence and Chloё informs Ray on their first meeting that the film is not a “hommage” but more “a nod of the head” to Nicolas Roeg’s Don't Look Now (1973).1
5An overt display of cynicism is apparent in the opening sequence of In Bruges that bewilders and captivates the audience. The viewer is greeted with melodious music, glorious medieval architecture and an elegance characteristic of continental Europe. The shots are carefully stylised, featuring nightscapes of gothic grandeur, gargoyles, charming bridges and canals. Slow camera pans and tilts highlight the various features. However, after the first couple of minutes, the initial tone of the film is interrupted by a voiceover of Ray giving an account of the events that brought him to Bruges. In a broad Dublin accent, he informs us that he has committed murder, thrown his gun in the Thames, washed his hands in the bathroom of a Burger King and grudgingly wound up in Bruges for reasons that are beyond him. He boldly admits to not knowing where Bruges was and after a fitting pause, tells us “…it’s in Belgium”, thus, creating the assumption that the audience is none the wiser. Stylised shots of the Flemish city suddenly cut to black and are quickly followed by hand-held footage of Ray and Ken in the middle of a bickering argument as they walk through the streets, having just arrived. The audience is immediately brought down to earth as the poetic meets the crass, a dichotomy that McDonagh incites often throughout the film. Imbued with cynical undertones, this opening sequence is both an invitation and a warning to those not so partial to jet-black humour. The methodology also positions the spectator, beckoning him or her into the action.
- 2 Carter Burwell is a renowned American film composer noted for his minimalism and his unconventional (...)
6But the level of intrigue is more potent than one might expect as one gradually becomes aware of the strategic semiotic interference within the film’s text. Carter Burwell’s2 music score contributes largely to the aesthetic contrast that is created and this input may actually be the film’s most striking and perplexing feature. A delicate melody sets the picture alight, luring the spectator at a subconscious level so that one may seem to be watching two films at once. Colloquialisms repeatedly clash with the visual dimension of the film and Burwell’s score compounds this aspect, disconcerting the viewer. Subtle, yet magnetic, particularly alongside the visual milieu of Bruges, Burwell’s piano solo is certainly not what one would expect to compliment a gangster comedy. The invisible nature of the score is paramount in creating this dichotomy, brilliantly manipulating the tone of the narrative by subverting any notions of sleaze or hardcore violence.
7It is as though the director’s choice of codes concocts a scenario, which in turn sets up the audience for an experience, yet purposely fails to fulfil that experience. While the visual elements may be attributed to the film’s editor, Jon Gregory and the director of photography, Eigil Bryld, the unique capacity of Burwell’s composition is not only its ability to draw in a wider demographic but also its skill in confusing the sensibilities of the spectator. In impressing a non-diegetic melodic score recurrently upon the audience and contriving the nature of the script through the mise en scène at an aural level, the comedic aspect intensifies and uncovers a film of remarkable erudition. It then becomes evident that each filmic reference and sign and its relation to the next reference and sign is carefully conjured and positioned to subvert the response of the audience.
- 3 In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there are several references, bordering on the ridiculous, to the e (...)
8Similar techniques are used by McDonagh in his plays. Such tactics are executed with skill and formulate an interesting approach to comedy. The method brings to mind Jacque Derrida’s theory Of Grammatology wherein values are questioned and hierarchies of thought and feeling are overthrown. The more one places trust in the narrative, the more likely one is let down by it. The weaving together of several dialects of English, predominantly Dublin and Cockney English create associations that are in direction opposition to Bruges as a location. What we see is in conflict with what we hear in terms of the script, thus, a sub-narrative is established through the various codes and linguistic associations. The construction of a sub-narrative which diverts the attention of the audience has become a trademark of McDonagh’s, allowing the work to address weighty subject-matter without the weight.3 But the method has a mischievous quality, almost as though the director is slighting his audience and defying his critics. Therefore, a sense of abandon or a relinquishing of expectation becomes essential in absorbing the quirky madness of McDonagh.
- 4 Quentin Tarantino’s films “draw on a mixture of cinematic sources and deploy the rhetoric of violen (...)
9In Bruges and McDonagh’s award winning short film Six Shooter (2006) are often hailed as having a Tarantinoesque4 quality, yet the level of ‘blood and guts’ and subsequent realism is not nearly as disturbing. McDonagh’s application of violence is distinct in that while it creates an intensity, it still maintains a certain degree of dissociation, thus, allowing the film to work on different levels, levels that McDonagh is very much aware of. When Ray commits his first cold blooded murder, a comfortable distance is established between the audience and the victim’s traumas, making the harsher elements that much more palatable. The revelation that Ray has mistakenly shot a little boy when he assassinates a priest is absurd. The scenario in which a bullet kills two people at once and the non-naturalistic wound on the boy’s forehead is no less absurd. A strong sense of parody is at work here.
- 5 See Jan Provoost, ‘Death and the Miser’ (1505-10), Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.h (...)
- 6 See ‘Jan Provoost Death and the Miser’ in Belgium & Luxembourg, Google Books, Martin Dunford & Phil (...)
10After the gruesome scene, there is an artistic birds-eye view of Ray amidst the carnage, after which there is a close-up of the boy’s bloodstained confession note, which reads: “1. Being moody, 2. Being bad at maths, 3. Being sad”. All at once, the spectator is horrified, but also imbued with style and humour. The murder scene is subsequently transferred to a shot of an oak panelled diptych of Jan Provoost’s fifteenth century painting ‘Death and the Miser’5 which portrays a merchant passing a promissory note to a grinning skeleton in the next panel.6 There is no obvious connection between the confession and the promissory notes except that death has nullified each of them. The connotations induced then become subjective or culture specific, and are possibly McDonagh’s self-referential way of likening film to ‘high’ art.
11And so, although the viewer experiences the intended force of shock as a result of the gruesomeness, the director’s offhand sense of amusement quickly diffuses the repugnance of the scenes so that one does not feel traumatized by them. Hence, the display of violence becomes self-reflexive, somehow always telling us this is ‘blood and guts’ as soon as the event has taken place. But this tragicomical style is multilayered in its approach in that it also raises pertinent issues about our own screen relationship with violence. As spectators, our partial acceptance of the violence becomes questionable, especially as we readily excuse the brutality of the characters. This is particularly the case when Ray convinces Chloë that he never hits women right after he violently strikes down a Canadian woman in a restaurant. Although he is a vicious thug, the spectator is charmed by his overt sensitivity, as is Chloë, and his earnest plea for forgiveness becomes convincing. McDonagh has manipulated the audience to the extent that Ray is somehow exonerated of the crime almost immediately after the event has taken place.
- 7 See Laura Eldred, “Martin McDonagh and the Contemporary Gothic”, in Martin McDonagh: A Casebook edi (...)
- 8 The ethics of violence in cinema is self-referentially addressed in McDonagh’s recent film Seven Ps (...)
12Thus, this may validate Laura Eldred’s view that “the monstrous capacity of the audience is revealed and indicted” in McDonagh’s productions, as we are forced “to come face to face with [our] own blood thirst” and are perhaps even shown to take pleasure in seeing other people suffer (Russell, 119).7 Nonetheless, the counterargument of Richard Rankin Russell suggests that the “often uneasy laughter” apparent in McDonagh’s productions in fact reveals “the audience's discomfort” with his strategy and implies that the cruelty has “a far more ethical force than is sometimes admitted …” (Russell, 3).8 And so, it seems as we are given a glimpse of our own potential for evil, it is the absurdity of human behaviour itself that infatuates the audience, not so much the violence.
- 9 The main plot leads to a significant level of intensity, at which point the audience is deflated by (...)
13Another incidence of self-reflexivity is revealed towards the end of the film when the characters themselves create a satire out of the so called ‘shoot out’. In this instance, the contrivance points to cinema itself. The scene is deliberately slowed down and quashed by the actor’s allusion to it, such as when Ray momentarily suspends the action by asking Harry, his opponent, which one of them should count to three before they advance to the next part of the shoot out. Although the performance cleverly maintains the build-up and adrenalin rush that is expected in such a scene, there is little doubt that McDonagh is also making a reference to cinema itself, perhaps even making a skit of mainstream narrative by bringing attention to the trite familiarity of the action movie. There is a tone of deconstruction here, as we are momentarily thrown out of the film.9 In this instance, one is reminded of the characteristics of the nouvelle vague, fashioned by Jean Luc Godard, which boldly incorporated the Hollywood genre movie into French cinema. However, McDonagh duly reverses any inkling of European elitism when in a previous scene, Ken asks Jimmy how the movie is going, to which he sardonically replies: “it's a jumped-up Eurotrash piece of rip-off fucking bullshit”. Here we have the American humorously jousting back at Chloë’s initial and possibly pretentious reference to the Dutch film not being a “hommage”, but more a salute to the British director, Nicolas Roeg.
14The intertextual references in the film are therefore more about bringing attention to the persuasive means with which an audience is cajoled and less about honouring the filmmaking of Roeg or dishonouring the Hollywood formula. Indeed, McDonagh’s semiotic ploy shows no preference for any particular genre. Rather, it is providing a space of intervention between two forms of film without prioritising one over the other. In exploring the various artistic strands within In Bruges, one gets a sense of the breadth of McDonagh’s sensibilities. Whether it is through formal aesthetic contrast, geographical location, construction of a sub-narrative, a self-reflexive use of violence or outright emotional deflection, the distinctive film codes exercised in In Bruges make evident McDonagh’s adeptness for challenging established concepts of art.
15The issues that have already been discussed above may raise the question, is In Bruges an Irish film set in Europe, is it a European film portraying Irish characters, or is it a mid-Atlantic movie set in Bruges? Perhaps it is the work of a diasporan initiating new cinematic parameters or subverting old ones within a self-conscious postmodern global age. Whatever the criterion, the same hit-man narrative set in Dublin or London would constitute a radically different film. Belgium as a location establishes the necessary distance required to represent Ireland within a global context and Bruges provides an unusual platform from which to observe the Irish character abroad.
- 10 In Bruges was initially scripted with two English characters in mind. Had this been the case, it mi (...)
16Although there are a variety of nationalities in the film, the casting of Gleeson and Farrell as the main stars and the authenticity of their accents give it a strong Irish dimension. However, the razor-sharp cockney humour of Fiennes’s character alleviates any notion of Irishness dominating the narrative.10 While In Bruges only affects at being multilingual (there are a few instances where English subtitles are used), English is indubitably the dominant language but is presented in several colourful dialects, Dublin English, Cockney English, Belgian English, Dutch English, American English and Canadian English. And so, as well as the location and cast, the dialectical choice also assists in destabilizing the destructive blinkered hold that often has its basis in nativism and nationalistic thought. Placing these characters in unconventional surroundings and among other nationalities makes them more ambiguous and allows for a more complex interpretation of them socially, culturally and psychologically.
- 11 Hamid Nacify, "Situating Accented Cinema", An Accented Cinema - Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, p. (...)
17In Bruges exemplifies the paradoxical nature of sensibility on the one hand and dissociation on the other that is characteristic of a diasporan; in other words the creative benefits of the vacillating outsider who observes with an ambiguous gaze, yet possesses an ability to innovate without the weight of cultural baggage. Having the aptitude to speak artistically about the motherland without being immersed in its national prejudices is not without its rewards. According to Hamid Naficy, in his essay, “Situating Accented Cinema”, “all great authorship is predicated on distance - banishment and exile of sorts”, and “the resulting tensions and ambivalences produce […] complexity and […] intensity that are so characteristic of great works of art and literature”.11
- 12 Nacify, p.11.
- 13 Ray and Ken could be novice diasporans. There is no evidence that they live in Ireland; they work f (...)
18For Naficy, the challenge of being “deterritorialised” means that filmmakers are forced to develop an authorial style.12 McDonagh’s synchronized sense of place and sense of difference reflects such an advantage. In In Bruges the cultural disparities between Ray and Ken pose questions about the migratory experience, those of exile and diaspora. From what we can gather by their pronounced accents and unless they are recent British émigrés, neither of the characters are confirmed diasporans.13 Nonetheless, they both signify different variants of displaced citizens. McDonagh’s wily sense of dislocation, via a second generation London-Irish upbringing has assisted him in thinking outside the geographical box and has given rise to an understanding of both mindsets.
- 14 Nacify, p.14.
- 15 Nacify, p.12.
19In his study, Nacify creates a divide between the qualities and aspirations of an exile and those of a diasporan. His hypothesis proposes that “binarism” and “subtraction” are characteristics of the former, while “multiplicity” and “addition” reflect that of the latter.14 This contrast is evident in the behaviour of the protagonists.15 Ray’s anxiety and intolerance reflects that of an exile; he has a black and white approach to life – “binarism”; he is suspicious of new cultures and has a tendency to weigh up his experiences with life in Dublin – “subtraction”. When Ken asks him to come and enjoy the view from the impressive bell-tower in the city square, he retorts defensively: “Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t”. He also endorses the fact that “the one thing [he] likes about Europe [is that] you don’t have to learn any their languages”. Conversely, Ken’s temperance and open-mindedness is more in accordance with the principles of a diasporan. Overall, he is comfortable with the different cultures he encounters –“multiplicity”, and he is eager to accumulate new experiences – “addition”.
20Although Nacify’s study applies primarily to filmmakers, his views correspond to diasporas and exiles in general. He makes a further distinction between the exile’s focus on “there and then” and the diasporan’s contentment with the “here and now”.16 “Although [exiles] do not return to their homelands, they maintain an intense desire to do so,” in which case they perpetuate their opposing emotional attitudes and remain eternally dissatisfied. Ray personifies these traits; he is on the run, has a longing for Dublin but cannot return. He is hugely attached to his Irish identity and is very much threatened by difference. In fact anything that has not to do with alcohol, straight sex or Dublin is prohibited. Americans, farmers, blacks, homosexuals, Pakistanis, prostitutes, and the learning disabled are all out of bounds. Ken, on the other hand, is happy in Europe and does not feel compelled to constantly reinstate his nationality. He is a more complex character. Although he is embroiled in the life of an assassin he has developed other interests and a sensibility towards the finer things in life. And in many ways his genuine interest in the cultural aspects of Bruges redeems his criminality, thus, adding to the intrigue of the narrative.
21In fact where these opposing characteristics converge is a high point of the film in terms of its comical content. After a series of bickering arguments, Ray agrees to accompany Ken on an excursion to the Flemish sites and museums, provided he gets to take Chloё out on a date that evening. Among many tourist attractions, they visit The Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is revered as a “repository of a venerated phial said to contain a cloth with [the] blood of Jesus Christ”.17 Ken earnestly explains to Ray the significance of the phial and launches into a detailed account of how a Flemish knight transported the blood from the Holy Land to Bruges in the twelfth century, added to the fact that at different times, particularly times of great stress, the dried blood would turn back into liquid. But when Ken suggests that they both join the queue to touch the relic, Ray childishly squirms: “Do I have to?” to which Ken, clearly annoyed, responds: “Do I have to? Do you have to? It’s Jesus’s fucking blood, isn’t it? Of course you don’t fucking have to!”. Ray's half-heartedness and his indifference to what might be considered a miraculous phenomenon or an ancient cultural spectacle frustrates Ken to the point of explosion. Regardless of the fact that they are both assassins and despite their outer similarities and obvious friendship, a strong differentiation is made between their cultural persuasions. Ray is still entrenched in the drink culture and in reaffirming his Irish identity through it; his attachment to the popular and the familiar is unremitting. Ken, on the other hand, has moved on and is benefiting from a willingness to explore.
- 18 Michael D. Higgins, "The Challenge of Building the Mind of Peace, Asserting the Humanistic Vision" (...)
- 19 See Special Features, In Bruges DVD (2007).
- 20 McDonagh, Martin, and Colin Farrell, “A discussion about the film In Bruges” Interview with Charlie (...)
22Hence, the hit-man narrative is merely a superficial cinematic layer, initially creating an impression that the characters, being partners in crime, are sharing a common rhythm. Yet, when probed deeper, one realizes that they are in fact worlds apart. This divergence, particularly in Ken’s case, points to what Michael D. Higgins calls “the risks and the neglected benefits of having being [...] condemned to break the inherited links [...] to cultural certainties”.18 The migrants’ trajectory, although generally rewarding, is often preceded by trial and conflict, for in order to embrace new cultures and hear the next man or woman’s story, elements of one’s own learned experience may be challenged, or required in some instances, to dissipate. Interestingly, McDonagh admits to having created the two characters from his own experience when visiting Bruges.19 On the one hand he found the city incredibly beautiful, on the other, incredibly boring. In a television interview with Charlie Rose, he wittily refers to the polarization of the culture lover and the drunken whore within himself.20 Thus, the genus of the narrative came from a voice in his own head, a voice that recognises diversity as an inevitability but also one which verifies the contradictory or often irreconcilable forms of social, moral and cultural practice.
23In Bruges then, is facilitating the transition from the insular ‘identity-obsessed’ character, who habitually references the past, to one who looks to the future and embraces cultural diversity and global change. In the words of Higgins, “if we are to learn tolerance [...] it must include [...] the commitment to hear a multitude of stories”.21 McDonagh’s grasp of the complexity of experience reflects such worldliness, rendering him a filmmaker who is not bound by any set framework, but one who accepts unequivocally the transnationality of cinema. This insightfulness is proof that the Irish migration process is dynamic and that well developed diasporas do in fact create their own autonomy.
- 22 Sara Keating, although coming from the milieu of theatre, highlights McDonagh’s artistic position a (...)
24Although In Bruges transcends the recurring ‘identity’ paradox associated with national cinema and national culture,22 the age-old anxieties that surround ethnicity and nationality continue to be thrashed out and satirized but at last, constructively, from a global perspective. One persistent tendency within the film is that each of the various nationalities becomes the subject of ridicule. This is brought about primarily through the deliberate stereotyping of obese Americans, boring Belgians, violent Irish, arrogant British, law-abiding Canadians and Dutch prostitutes. Such overt stereotyping may initially seem disingenuous, yet its method brings to light the dubiousness of nationalism and the underlying dangers of patriotism.
25Stereotyping is largely based on unification and separation and is a tactful approach often used in comedy to court an audience. Its nature is dualistic. Dualism is deeply imbedded in the unconsciousness of man and acts as an automatic precursor, an involuntary reflex to our interplay with life. It is also fundamental to nationalism and patriotism and the divisions they incur. A basic psychological tendency as human beings is to operate in relation to opposites or binaries, good/evil, rich/poor, black/white. McDonagh’s work seems to be encoded with this view, and although often condemned for its brutality, the work reflects an awareness of this susceptibility, this inherent divisive strategy, and utilizes it blatantly yet colourfully.
26Negative stereotypes are a clever anarchic device which lead to conflict and separation, yet by their very existence, positive qualities come into being and give rise to harmony and unification. That which is rejected reflects that which one wishes to attain. The inevitable conflict that arises out of so-called rational dualistic thought is what sustains the act of negative stereotyping but the force of its unwanted presence makes us demand in our own minds that it is subverted. The offensive dialogue and negative generalisations that are rife within the film are thus neutralized by their own deliberation and subsequently each of the labelled ethnic groups are freed from their tagged identities. Therefore, by focusing on the very origins of social conflict, one brings to light the negativity and persistence of stereotyping and hence, the futility of ethic intolerance. By insinuating that there are blemished identities within every ethnic group and then reconciling them, McDonagh is transcending the separatist nature of patriotism and the antagonistic limitations of ethnic nationalism.
- 23 Joan Dean remarks how “McDonagh’s comedy often emanates from the odd choices characters make about (...)
27One of the most obvious castigations in the film is of the obese American tourists who do everything the guidebook tells them to do. When a group of them innocently approach Ray in the town square, he ends up telling them they are “a bunch of fucking elephants”. Their subsequent aggression as they lash out in retaliation adds to their entrenched stereotype. The recent international reputation and global reaction to U.S. foreign policy is again reinforced when on two separate occasions, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), the American dwarf, apologizes for his nationality. “Don't hold it against me”, he remarks, after Ken discovers on their first encounter that he is American. He relays the same message to Ray in the following scene. But owing to his physicality, Jimmy is already subject to discriminatory comments. He is already coming to terms with a sense of ‘otherness’.23 Despite the fact that he himself has latent racist tendencies and although the militarized aggression of the Bush era is obliquely reflected through the knee-jerk retaliation of the tourists, the unreserved vulnerability that is portrayed in Jimmy’s character prompts the audience indeed not to perpetuate negative stereotypes. Although the tourists are undermined, their initial amicableness and Jimmy’s apologetic portrayal positively confirms the openness and friendliness of Americans and the fact that not all of them should be tarred with the same brush.
28Harry’s character, on the other hand, represents the contradictory and over simplistic notion of good over evil. An adamant dualist, he presents a striking polarity between the judgemental patronizing British puritan and the obsessive conscientious do-gooder who holds a substantial criminal record. He is a cold-blooded murderer but is simultaneously obsessed with honour and regiment. Stricken with morals, he fervently believes that Ray, who has killed an innocent, does not deserve a final chance at redemption; however, he is adamant that Bruges presents the ideal fairytale experience for Ray to end his days before he instructs Ken to assassinate him. Harry is a walking talking contradiction - the epitome of ethical confusion coupled with spiritual arrogance. His deranged philosophy demonstrates how prejudices are also derived from binaries. By creating a too fixed divide between good and evil and not allowing for any grey areas, Harry’s perverse character demonstrates how the dogma of dualistic thought can only perpetuate conflict.
29With regard to offsetting negative stereotypes, McDonagh creates an interesting counterbalance by forming an eclectic mix of characters from a similar ethnic grouping. Amidst a substantial portrayal of Brugean refinement, he makes a blatant spectacle of the stereotypical dour behaviour that might be associated with Belgians. When Ken, in tourist mode, is ten cents short of the five euro fee required to enter the bell-tower, a grim-faced gatekeeper chastises him and becomes adamant that he pay the exact amount and not a penny less. The Flemish gatekeeper, uncompromising and stern, is immediately challenged for being a stick-in-the-mud when Ken asks him, sarcastically, whether he is happy in his job. “Very happy”, he replies, in a monotonous tone. In a later scene the gatekeeper’s intransigence is again critiqued, but this time, violently, when after refusing late entry to the tower and rejecting a substantial monetary bribe, Harry brutally assaults him and knocks him clean to the ground.
30However, despite the negative representations that sustain common clichés, the Belgian women in the film are shown to possess a certain valour and a capacity for cool dry wit. In this instance McDonagh exercises ‘the cringe factor’ that adds to the power of black comedy. Chlöe is portrayed as particularly sharp and unpredictable. She wields satisfaction out of making Ray squirm when she mischievously pretends he has insulted her, after he jokingly remarks that he kills children for fun and makes lewd references to the Belgian child abuse scandal. She finds perverse pleasure in his sense of awkwardness and thoroughly enjoys his moments of recoil.
31The cringe element is also evident, but in a subtler way, when Ken makes a concerted effort to apologise to Marie (Thekla Reuten), the pregnant hotelier, for the crass message left by Harry the previous night. When Ken attempts to explain the type of person Harry is, and hesitates, Marie’s unlikely contribution is, “a cock?”. She is genteel and dignified and he, aware of this, is both charmed and surprised by her cool response and her choice of terminology. A wide angle shot of an enchanting bridge reflecting in a delightful Brugean canal, precedes the pretty chandeliered breakfast setting where Ken is sitting. Ken’s impeccable apology and Marie’s refined attributes are the antithesis to crass. The casual interchange between them is unexpected and the emphasis on Marie’s lingua franca not only accentuates the humourous aspect, but also evokes how different nationalities are depicted through film. Through converging the improper with the expectation of elegance, a more comprehensive and diverse account of the Belgians is portrayed. And so, by deliberately engaging with extremes, the film redeems the Belgians particularly and in many ways creates a reversal of stereotypes.
- 24 Dervila Layden cautions that although contemporary Irish comedy is in the process of challenging ou (...)
32Although In Bruges also engages with the stereotypical versions of the Irish character by making them a spectacle, it subsequently destabilizes their clichéd overtones by allowing them psychological expression. The troubled Irish with a proclivity for alcohol and violence is personified through Ray’s character, yet his proverbial ‘chip on the shoulder’ manifests as isolationism, ethnic intolerance, crudeness and dark cynicism. Even though Ken is similarly troubled, his inner turmoil isn’t outwardly expressed to the same extent; he is more self-assured and his obvious redeeming qualities support a more optimistic evolution of the contemporary Irish male. In this sense, the stereotypes are not being perpetuated,24 but rather given a platform on which their underlying causes can be teased out.
- 25 Gould, Allan. “An Anthologizer’s Comments About Our Community Gifted Countrypersons”, See http://ww (...)
33Like Harry, Ray’s view of society is over-simplistic. Ray observes history and its place in the world as worthless, purporting that “it’s all just a load of stuff that’s already happened”. He openly admits to not knowing or caring much about it, in which case his patriotism is unfounded. But his lack of concern backfires. The guilt he endures, the rejection he suffers, the insularity he carries, plus his innate desire to belong makes him a prize candidate for bigotry, patriotic bias and ethnic intolerance. Ray’s xenophobia is prevailing. This is reinforced when, prior to violently attacking a Canadian couple in a restaurant, he mistakes them for Americans and accuses them of waging war on the Vietnamese. He assaults them a second time for the assassination of John Lennon. Ironically, the fact that other nationalities are perceived to know very little about Canada is often used as self-deprecating humour by Canadian comedians.25 The Canadian dialect is persistently mistaken for American in which case interpretations of culture are not only subject to subtle phonetic variations but also exist within a fragile space at the behest of socio-linguistic complexities. Nuances of language play a major role in the occurrence of stereotyping. Therefore, to a certain extent Ray does not belong to a minority; rather, he symbolizes the masses and its pervasive insidious misuse of generalizations.
- 26 In this case, Hourigan was referring to Americans who daily reinstate their nationality, yet when t (...)
- 27 cf Walker Connor, 1994, p.206, Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism, p.162.
34Stereotyping is a global phenomena; indeed, the fact that we laugh at it so readily is evidence of it ubiquity. It is automatic and reactive, in which case it easily fosters thoughtless patriotic beliefs that are expressed beyond the perimeters of language. As sociologist Niamh Hourigan suggests, “benign patriotism” is often the most dangerous as it is sometimes a prerequisite for underlying aggression.26 Malevolent acts often arise from misunderstandings and are executed out of reactionary emotion as opposed to any premeditated objective. In the words of Walker Connor, “men don’t allow themselves to be killed for their interests; they allow themselves to be killed for their passions”.27 And so, civic nationalism, with all its apparent respect for democratic values and the ethnic other can also be dangerous at a fundamental level.
35An interesting blend of tart dry humour, European charm and the hit-men’s adaptation to the latter, makes the city of Bruges a character unto itself. As a location, it offers huge scope, on the one hand stressing the value of ‘high’ culture and a glorious medieval past, on the other teasing out the existence of ‘low’ or marginalised cultures- the social realities of the present day. On first impression, we are enchanted by the city’s canals, museums and gothic heritage; we do not associate Bruges with crime, seediness and the debauched. Nonetheless, when Ken informs Ray that they may have been sent there “on a job”, Ray assumes that locating guns will be a problem. To his astonishment, Ken informs him that “Harry can get guns anywhere, even in Bruges!”. Similarly, when Ken admires Denise, who he presumes is Jimmy’s girlfriend, Jimmy duly informs him that she is a prostitute he picked up in a local brothel. Again, that which is deemed polite and proper is shown to reside closer than one might anticipate, to its opposite.
- 28 Bosch’s works symbolise the hideous “consequences of human folly”. See Sharp, Henry J. Art History (...)
- 29 Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx, The Web Gallery of Art, Last Judgement, Groeninge Museum, Bruges. See h (...)
36This dichotomy is accentuated when Ken and a recalcitrant Ray visit the Groeninge Museum and become intrigued by the Last Judgement, a sixteenth century triptych supposedly illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch.28 To Ray, all the other paintings are “rubbish” except this one, but only because it relates to his own experience. The work symbolises “the all besetting evil and perennial human stupidity that render the world a hell even before the day of divine judgement”.29 Although Ray is already smitten by the representation, he innocently prompts Ken to explain it to him in more detail. He is genuinely moved and is in no way feigning sophistication. Ray’s reaction verifies that the magnitude of one’s vocabulary has little to do with one’s experience of art. As a result, he is freed, if only momentarily from the gangster-ridden pigeonhole that incarcerates him. Consequently, the attractiveness of Bruges is not only limited to its physical splendour or ancient culture; rather, it acts as a character in its own right, questioning our set beliefs.
- 30 Brian Appleyard states that the middle classes emerged through increased economic complexity; thus (...)
37In Bruges then reconsiders the coexistence of the supposed ruffians and the invented middle classes,30 and in many ways shows, in spite of appearances, that they do in fact share a common rhythm. The overlapping of cultural interests and criminal activity in Ken’s case is the first implication of this. Yuri’s (Eric Godon) residence which overlooks the picturesque canal is strewn with semi-automatics and collected antiques and Chloё’s double life as a production assistant come drug dealer/thief reinforces this association. However, the merging of Harry’s cockneyisms with his desperate need for economic self-endorsement confirms it beautifully. Harry has got the house in the country; he has the wife and the kids, the Japanese au pair, yet in order to fulfil his social aspirations, he kills people for money. His desperation symbolizes the ambition but also the anxiety that is part of becoming upwardly mobile. His irritation at the possibility of failure is brilliantly emphasised when after things don’t go according to plan, he smashes a phone violently and reverts to calling his wife “an inanimate object”. For all his apparent wealth and ability to maintain the status quo, he becomes lost in human anguish. The desperation of the criminal is thus, shown to be the effect of something greater than his own personal dilemma.
38Although the redemptive theme within the film may be the dominating feature, at a more basic level In Bruges reflects the ordinary man’s quest for survival in a world where pecuniary success has become the new religion. In this instance, the film highlights, although inadvertently, inherent flaws in the system that deepen social and economic inequalities and rouse the imagined need to belong to a certain group or category. By depicting Harry’s desperation to live above his station and the angst it causes him, In Bruges is laying bare the preconditions of social conflict. When Ken mistakenly discloses that Bruges is not really Ray’s thing, Harry becomes obstreperous in his defence of the city and in his finest cockney brawl retorts : ‘How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff ... not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh ?’ It becomes obvious that Harry is really trying to convince himself. The world he is trying to invent and the sadness of his situation points, not only to the inauthenticity of an aspiring bourgeoisie, but to the existential anguish of having to be part of a particular rank as an end in itself. Harry’s lifestyle is shown to be self deluding and tort; his artifice, perverse puritanicalism and endless obsession with code and honour, to some measure is revelatory of those who get caught up in class divisions and cultural snobbery.
- 31 Matthew. Crosston, Shadow Separatism, Implications for Democratic Consolidation, p.3.
- 32 Crosston, p.9.
- 33 Eamonn Jordan, "War on Narrative: The Pillowman", TheTheatre of Martin McDonagh, A World of Savage (...)
39According to Matthew Crosston in his study, Shadow Separatism, “ethnic identity and economic status play a [huge] role across the globe in the emergence and resolution of conflict”.31 Crosston also points out that “ethnicity impacts democratic transitions only as much as the institutions chosen to develop democracy constrain or enhance conflict”.32 In other words, the problem of ethnic conflict exists from the chain of command to the ground. In a study of McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, Eamonn Jordan proposes that the “drama establishes the regimes through which citizens are recruited, indoctrinated and interpellated by systems and structures”.33 According to Jordan, it is difficult “to evade the distinctive practices of the state, which ultimately foist positive aspirations and false realities and illusions before its populace”. “Such citizens”, he adds, “become most likely […] misguided and beguiled agents of the state” (176).
40In a similar vein, In Bruges makes an indelible connection between class, ethnicity and conflict. On the one hand the underworld of Ken and Ray highlights the social disparities that perpetuate ethnic conflict on the ground; on the other hand, Harry’s desperation to belong to a particular rank or category, to be part of an imagined living standard and to obtain it at any expense, indicates a certain critique of the organised system and demonstrates how the exclusivity of the latter perpetuates the former. In this sense, In Bruges is not only presenting a humourous tale of gangsters and their path of redemption; it is also drawing on the freedom of fiction to document social concerns.
- 34 See Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism, p. 125.
- 35 Smith, p.125.
- 36 Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, p. 35.
- 37 Tamir, p. 32.
41Forming mass allegiances or advocating collective groups or clusters is the mission of nationalist ideology, be it ethnic, ethno-cultural, political or civic, and a fundamental component of nationalism in whatever form is the classification of one group by another. Yet each cluster forms radically different moral perceptions depending on their social position. Historically the intelligentsia have exerted power over the populace through developing a system of national institutions. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm states that “nations are quite recent constructs” by “elites bent on preserving order in the turbulence of late capitalism”.34 Elie Kedourie denounces nationalism as an artificial construction by elites who “tap the emotions of the masses and provide them with social and psychological security”.35 However, in a study entitled Liberal Nationalism, Yael Tamir suggests that “the liberal tradition, with its respect for personal autonomy, reflection and choice, and the national tradition, with its emphasis on belonging, loyalty and solidarity […], can indeed accommodate each other”.36 Tamir is of the opinion that “the liberal tendency to overlook the value inherent in nationalism is mistaken”.37
- 38 McDonagh, M. ‘Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell on In Bruges’ Interview with Ed Caesar. The Sunday (...)
42But In Bruges demonstrates that the exclusivity within national institutions does not suffice for all members of society. People will inevitably interpret the establishment as intrusive, an imposition to their freedom and as a result, become marginalised. Categorization at a class, cultural or ethnic level is a precondition for prejudice, conflict and racism. To nationalise is to categorize. To categorize is to create a divide. At a mild level nationalism draws allegiance but also separation. At a more moderate level, it instigates patriotism but also division. At its most extreme it constitutes autocracy and bloodshed. McDonagh purposely wrote Ray’s character as someone lovable “who had no self-censorship, who was unaware of what could be offensive”.38 Even though Ray displays extreme patriotic beliefs he has no understanding of national doctrines in terms of their autocratic force, nor does he have any inkling to question them. His attitude to European languages and culture corresponds to a colonized mindset whitewashed by the compliance of national institutions that insure the dominance of linguistic imperialism.
43When Ray finds himself on a train faced with a Belgian policeman who tries to convey that he “heet the Canadian” he is perplexed until he recognizes the American sounding couple standing at the rear of the carriage. An Irishman who mistakes a Canadian for an American is mediated by a Belgian whose phonetics he also misinterprets. But one begs the question, does Ray’s antagonism have more to do with national prejudices or his inaptitude with language and dialect. Polyglots might contend that one’s ability to embrace the world is determined by linguistic aptitude, but the conflict may also arise not from the failure to speak other people’s languages but from the loss of one’s own indigenous dialect.
44For all its multi-culturalism, In Bruges makes little or no reference to the Irish language or culture apart from Luke Kelly’s moving rendition of ‘Raglan Road’ in the final sequence. Ray’s character reflects this mindset. He has been indoctrinated only into popular culture through national media; Star Wars, Time Bandits, Fantasy Island, all of which were imported into Ireland from England and America, yet he remains bigoted in defending his nationality. ‘History’ after all for him “is just a load of stuff that’s already happened”. Hence, his values are misconstrued. So-called cultural elites that purport to be concerned with national regeneration programmes often acquiesce to imperialist agendas for economic reasons. The privileged and the influential may have political and economic clout but may not necessarily be discerning in their choices. The prominence of the English language epitomizes the fact that nationalist missions can be hollow and misguiding structures. In Bruges itself is a glaring example of linguistic imperialism in world cinema, but the film recompenses this fact in its diversity of culture and its choice of cast and location.
- 39 The reference here is to Martin Heidegger, the famous German philosopher who is well known for his (...)
- 40 Anthony Quinton, "Political Philosophy", The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, ed. A. Kenny, p. (...)
- 41 Kenny, p. 340.
- 42 Kenny, p. 356.
- 43 Smith, p. 33.
- 44 cf. Ernest Gellner 1983, p. 57, Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism, p. 33.
- 45 In a recent publication, Fintan O’Toole charts the disintegration of national institutions and the (...)
- 46 Andrew Vincent, Nationalism and Particularity, p.108.
45Ironically the romanticism of the eighteenth century philosophers Fichte and Hegel, and the premise of the ‘pure’ fatherland from which nationalism arose was indeed a philosophical hypothesis which later became misconstrued by political elites.39 Anthony Quinton refers to the ‘highmindedness’40 of Fichte which saw his nation as being “particularly qualified to conduct a mission of cultural and moral regeneration to the world”.41 Quinton later describes the “intellectual currents” of these philosophers as “precursors to fascism”.42 Ernest Gellner also speaks of nationalism’s imposition of its ‘garden’ culture “on the population of the state [...] us[ing] whatever of the old ‘wild’ cultures that it requires”.43 “Contrary to its folk idiom and romantic self-image, nationalism ‘is essentially the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the majority...’”44 In this case, and although its eradication is unlikely, nationalism’s inability to properly integrate a majority and its incompatibility with those on the fringe, who reject this ‘garden’ culture for whatever reason, is an indication that it must not be granted free reign.45 In the words of Andrew Vincent, “nationalism is a contemporary inevitability, which should be minimised”.46
46Although the criminals in In Bruges do not constitute a privileged minority, nor do they enjoy psychological or social security, they too have identified themselves in terms of their dissimilation or separation; in this case they are tarnished by what they perceive to lack. They are, thus, “the misguided and beguiled agents of the state”, the disillusioned. They are a realm unto themselves, yet their concept of ‘nation’ does not constitute belonging, loyalty and solidarity as liberal enthusiasts might engender. Gunfire is their voice, the definitive voice of frustration. Consequently, in its allusion to ethnicity and national stereotypes In Bruges demonstrates that “membership in a nation” does not always unify or “promise individuals redemption from personal oblivion” as Tamir hoped.47 As it weakens racial and class divides, social internationalism with an adherence to cultural diversity is by far more conducive to ethnic tolerance and social cohesion.
47When attempting to critique a work it is imperative to beware of creating signifiers which may not have any bearing on the actual meaning, if any, intended by the artist. Therefore, I am not proposing that In Bruges is making any conscious sociological statement or advocating any political agenda. However, I would suggest that the inflections in McDonagh’s work offer a deep psychological understanding of the disparity between diaspora and exile and present a philosophy that recognises, although inadvertently, a necessity for tolerance in a globalised world. In Bruges demonstrates how migratory fusions and linguistic tensions are unavoidable, how hybrid cultures are inevitable and how their trajectory is becoming increasingly uncertain.
48The mass tendency to stereotype reflects an inherent divisive strategy which breeds insularity and is thus counterproductive by nature. Stereotyping escalates through an excessive preoccupation with racial, cultural and class identity and its precipitation is fundamental to the constricted institutionalized consciousness of patriotism and nationalist ideology. To support such preoccupation is to encourage intolerance and complacency towards history. Therefore, social cohesion is something one can strive towards, but its complete establishment is a far off utopia, for its horizons can only exist within the realms of ambiguity. Yet diversity of culture, the film seems to say, must not become a casualty of division neither at an individual nor at a societal level. Homogeneity as a consequence of cultural hierarchy is a retrograde step. For this reason, as an auteur who uses divisiveness to the extreme, even to the point of political incorrectness, I would argue, at the risk of falling into the same categorist trap, that McDonagh is the quintessential pluralist.
49Although the antagonistic content in McDonagh’s work is contentious for some critics, its application is by no means reckless. Political incorrectness is both a trademark and a vice consciously used to illuminate the darkness of humanity. As well as diverting our emotional response through the tragicomical and the absurd, McDonagh’s style demonstrates how working with extremes forces one to decode the obvious and see things in a new light. Antagonism and violence are catalysts that push the limits of conformity, address taboo subjects, confront the dualistic impulse and spark discourse in an increasingly standardized cinematic world. By deflating our sense of familiarity we are prompted on the one hand to undermine the categories, to think outside the box, but we are also reminded not to take the narrative and ourselves so seriously.
51Dean, J. “In Bruges”, “Irish Film and Television 2008, The Year in Review”, Tony Tracy Last Judgement, Groeninge Museum (ed.), Estudios Irlandeses: Issue 4: 2009.
52Derrida, J. Of Grammatology, (1967) Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (Balltimore: John Hopkins University,1997). http://www.mohamedrabeea.com/books/book1_3997.pdf
53Dunford, M & P. Lee M.D.. ‘Jan Provoost, Death and the Miser’, Belgium & Luxembourg – Google Books, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=7dnVBqWvFmQC&pg=PA178&dq=death+and+the+miser+jan+provoost&hl=en&sa=X&ei=aCYiUcjgDdSRhQfbm4BA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=death%20and%20the%20miser%20jan%20provoost&f=false Accessed 07/02/13.
54Gould, A. “An Anthologizer’s Comments about our Comically Gifted Countrypersons”.
55Hourigan, Dr. N. “The function and morality of nationalism in a globalised and interdependent world”. “Spirit Moves” presented by M. Duncan, RTE Radio 1. Programme: 28. 12th April 2009. http://www.rte.ie/radio1/spiritmoves/1231937.htlm
56Kren, E. & D. Marx. Death and the Miser (1505-10), Groeninge Museum, Bruges. “The Web Gallery of Art”. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/p/provost/index.html Accessed 08/02/2013.
57Kren, E. & D. Marx. Last Judgement, Groeninge Museum, Bruges. “The Web Gallery of Art”. http://www.wga.hu/index1.html
58McDonagh, M. & C. Farrell. “A discussion about the film In Bruges. An interview with Charlie Rose, Date: 06/02/08
59McDonagh, M. “Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell on In Bruges”. An Interview with Ed Caesar, The Sunday Times, 06/04/08
61McDonagh, Martin. In Bruges (UK 2008).
62McDonagh, Martin. Six Shooter (Ireland 2005).
63McDonagh, Martin. Seven Psychopaths (UK 2012).
64Roeg, Nicolas. Don't Look Now (UK 1973).