IN BRUGES: A Place Is What You Make It
A Fair Warning: This article quotes liberally from one of the most gloriously profane movies of all time.
“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”
“What I think I mean to say was—“
“Is the swan still there?”
“Yeah, the swans—“
“How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”
Far too many people spend their lives looking for that perfect place. They say, “If I can just get to New York, then—THEN—I’ll be happy,” only to get to New York and wonder why just being in the city hasn’t elevated their life to an entirely higher plane of existence. They make a go for some distant Eden that will make their life new, yet are continually shocked that being in a different place doesn’t renovate their entire life.
In Martin Scorsese’s early (and hardly Scorseseian) work ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, Alice spends the film hoping to get to Monterey, the place she believes she can make a life for herself and her son. By the end of the film she comes to realize that “Monterey” was wherever she wanted it to be. It’s the diner in which she found steady work, in the town where she found the love of Kris Kristofferson–a love we would all really be lucky to have. She never needed to actually reach Monterey to be happy, because she found Monterey where she was. This is, of course, spelled out in big bold letters as we come to realize the diner is called the “Monterey Diner,” but the point is no less valid because of that.
We assign meaning to places that they don’t inherently have on their own. When I walk around the Missouri State University campus, sight of the life-changing Missouri Fine Arts Academy I attended in 2010, I’m filled with a swelling joy and a sea of memories the campus doesn’t necessarily exude on its own. Putting too much stock into a place you’ve never been is how one ends up attending six different colleges, wondering why none of them have altered their life in unforeseen and revelatory ways. One must be open to the power of a place without expecting there to be any power at all. Disneyland is only disappointing if you’re expecting Disneyland to be “Disneyland.”
In Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES, Bruges, Belgium is all things to all people.
To Ray (Colin Farrel), Bruges is a “shithole,” a miserable place populated by boring people and a bunch of old buildings. He can’t have fun because he doesn’t see what could possibly be fun. He declares Bruges a shithole just after getting off the train. He has his mind made up that this is going to be a dirty, backwater hollow trapped in the past, and that’s all he can see it as, really with no provocation from anyone but himself. Ray doesn’t deal with local rubes or distaste for foreigners from anyone. In almost every situation throughout IN BRUGES, Ray is the rudest, loudest, most unpleasant person in the room and makes Bruges actively worse for everyone around him.
This stands in direct opposition to Ken (Brendan Gleeson), Ray’s partner and unwilling travel companion. If Ray is “about the worst tourist in the whole world,” Ken is ostensibly the best. He revels in Bruges’ many wondrous sights, including a hospital built in the 1100s and a basilica said to contain a vial of Jesus Christ’s blood. He experiences the exact same sights as Ray, but sees them in a completely different light. He meets the same people, the only difference being that those people leave conversations with Ken happy, and not feeling equal parts sorry for and infuriated with him.
To Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), the profane crime boss quoted above wondering how swans can’t be somebody’s fucking thing, Bruges is equal parts gravesite and blissful holiday experience. He remembers having a wonderful holiday in Bruges when he was a child, and thinks it’ll be a nice place for Ray to spend his last moments. If Ray has to be killed by his friend and mentor in a park, Bruges is the idyllic, dreamlike, chocolate-stuffed place for that to happen.
There are, of course, limitations on what a place can be. One seeking to make a go of it in painted art might have better luck in New York, New York than in Farmington, Missouri, but if Bruges can be an actual vision of Hell for Ray; a holiday to Ken; a fairytale to Harry; home to Chloe, Belgian lady in the Belgium film business; a place to rip off tourists for Eirik; and a place to film a “jumped up piece of Eurotrash bullshit” for Jimmy the dwarf, then how can a place not truly be what you make of it?
IN BRUGES would argue that what you see in a place is what you project onto it. When you reach any new location, you can project onto it either your inner sense of wonder or your inner sense of being an insufferable shit. That choice is yours’.
Another of your choices is to listen to the first episode of my podcast Talking Back to the Movies, which discusses IN BRUGES at great length and with wagging fanboy enthusiasm. My partner in podcasting Gabe Levy and I have recorded a few episodes since then, but we’re still proud of this little fledgling that got it all started. You can listen to it right here.