November 7, 2008

Things to do in Belgium when you’re not quite dead

"I do know a Belgium joke. What's Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids."
Belgium takes a hammering in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's first film In Bruges, but it might also steer the tourists towards the canals, churches and squares of medieval picturebook town Bruges, a so-called Venice of the north. The set-up sounds a little like the eloquent-hitman scenarios that came thick and fast in the 90s, in the wake of Tarantino -- Irish shooters Ken (older, wiser and played by Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (younger, simpler and played by Colin Farrell) are sent to Bruges in winter to hide out after a couple of killings in London. Incongruity, right? There's a touch of Beckett in McDonagh’s writing of this odd couple’s minutely-examined boredom, killing two slow weeks in a tourist town. Their boss, Harry (an enjoyably nasty Ralph Fiennes, initially just a voice on the phone), picked Bruges because of his "fairytale" memories of a magical childhood holiday. The canals, the swans, and so on. So they're aren't just eloquent hitmen, they're sentimental hitmen. And also, we learn, moral.
Bruges is a real place, but then again, it isn't. Ken and Ray's hideaway is doubling as a film location. Ray tells the joke above to impress a girl -- he meets her on the set of a Euro arthouse movie that’s being shot in the town, some of which involves a dwarf in a dream sequence, which is a homage, she says, to the Venice-set Don't Look Now (but which reminded me more of a comedy bit in Living in Oblivion when the dwarf complains about being in a dream sequence -- "The only place I've seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this"), and some of which involves a Bosch-inspired costume party. And by this point, both Ken and Ray have already imbibed an exhibition of gory medieval art -- including Bosch's Last Judgement – which McDonagh also treats us to in close-up, as well as a replay of a killing of a priest that still haunts Ray. So it’s not just a film about guilt and morality, it’s really a film about Catholic guilt, Catholic morality, but told with an enviably light touch.