Press Enter to Search
Subscribe to the MeCETES Newsletter for the latest blogs on European film and TV drama.
* = required field

In Bruges (2008): A Mediated Cultural Encounter

In the British crime-comedy In Bruges (2008) we see the historic Flemish city through the eyes of two fugitive Irish gangsters. Huw D Jones explores how this cultural encounter with other Europeans was enabled by the film’s production context and how it was received by audiences across Europe.

In Bruges film posterIn Bruges is a film of many cultural encounters. We encounter the historic Flemish city of Bruges – its medieval buildings and canals, its bars and hotels. We encounter two the Irish hit-men, Ken and Ray, ordered by their East End crime boss Harry Waters to lie low in the city, following a bungled assassination. We encounter Bruges locals in the form of Chloe, a local drug-dealer, her ex-boyfriend Eirik, and hotel owner Natalie, as well as Canadian tourists, Dutch sex workers and an American dwarf actor. And we see how these different nationalities encounter each other on screen.

How were these cultural encounters enabled, and what do they mean?

Production context

In production terms, In Bruges could be regarded as a British-Irish film – albeit one backed by US money. It was written and directed by the London-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and produced by London-based Blueprint Pictures, in association with FilmFour, Scion Films and Focus Features, the art house division of US-based NBC-Universal. Its stars Irish actors Brendon Gleeson and Colin Farrell, along with the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

Yet the film production also had a wider European dimension. It was filmed on location in Bruges, with the support of the town’s Tourism and City Film Offices. And it features an international cast, including the French actress Clemence Posey, the Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, and the Belgium actor Jérémie Renier.

But In Bruges is not a European co-production of the kind financed by the EU’s MEDIA programme. As the film’s producer Graham Broadbent explained to me in a phone interview, Blueprint Pictures didn’t even think about accessing European funding as they already had financing in place. Neither did they consider a European co-production, partly because they didn’t want to create what Broadbent called a ‘tapestry’ – which is perhaps a polite way of describing a ‘Euro-pudding’. Scepticism to this model of production is indicated in the film itself where the American dwarf actor Jimmy tells Ken the film he is working on is a piece of ‘jumped-up Eurotrash’. Blueprint’s commercial strategy is to make films for a mass market. This is perhaps typical of British film production, where in comparison to mainland Europe, media policy encourages companies to find market solutions rather than rely on state subsidy.

Bruges as a foreign ‘Other’

The film’s production context perhaps explains its ambivalence towards other Europeans. Through the eyes of the film’s two protagonists, Ken and Ray, Bruges is portrayed as a foreign ‘Other’ – a strange fairy-tale world, far away from modern-day Dublin or London. Ray, the younger of the two, feels particularly out of place. He calls Bruges a ‘shithole’ and refuses to visit its historic landmarks. He regards its beer as ‘gay’ and calls its men ‘poofs’ – drawing on a long-established British discourse of seeing continental Europe as a source of male effeminacy and homosexuality. Ken, by contrast, is more enthusiastic about Bruges. Yet even he sees Bruges through a ‘tourist gaze’ rather than the eyes of a European citizen.

Reinforcing national differences

As with many comedies, much of the film’s humour comes from emphasising national differences. The Belgians, for example, are portrayed as well-educated (they often speak better English than Ken and Ray), but quite stubborn. One scene shows Ken comes across a particularly officious Belgium ticket collector, who refuses him entry to the city’s bell tower because he is ten cents short on the admissions charge. We are reminded that Belgium is the home of the EU – for Eurosceptics, an institution synonymous with petty rules and regulations – as well as the fact that Bruges was the place where the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher delivered her watershed 1989 ‘Bruges Speech’, opposing European integration.

Invoking Europeness

Yet the film does invoke some sense of ‘Europeanness’. Its aesthetic style owes more to European art house cinema than Hollywood. Its only Hollywood-esque chase scene ends in farce when Harry, pursuing Ray, simply runs out of breath and has to stop to check his map.

Encountering the ordinary aspects of European life - the bars, cafes and people smoking in restaurants.

In Bruges shows us both Europe’s cultural heritage and the ordinary aspects of European life – the bars, cafes and people smoking in restaurants.

Through Ken and Ray’s encounters with Bruges’ churches and museums we are also reminded of Europe’s common cultural heritage – its Christian traditions, its Romanesque architecture and its Renaissance art. More prosaically, we encounter the ordinary aspects of European life – the outdoor cafes, the Christmas festivities, the cold, misty climate. People still smoke in restaurants, much to the annoyance of non-European visitors.

Audience reception

How, then, did European audiences respond to the film? After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, In Bruges opened in Europe at the Dublin International Film Festival on 15 February 2008, before going on general release across 26 European countries. In the UK, it opened the same weekend as Vantage Point and the Other Boleyn Girl. And despite only showing in 70 screens – Vantage Point was seen in 350 – it not only reached a respectable 11 in the box office and averaged the highest weekly  cinema takings.

Rate of penetration (% of population) for the film In Bruges. (Source: LUMIERE)

Rate of penetration (% of population) for the film In Bruges. (Source: LUMIERE)

Across Europe, the film achieved about 2 million cinema admissions, making it the 24th most popular European film of 2008. It did particularly well in Ireland and the UK, probably due to the involvement of British and Irish actors, characters and humour, as well as a series of good press reviews. It also achieved above-average levels of penetration in Belgium, where it was set; in France, where it perhaps benefited from the involvement of the French actress Clemence Poesy; and in Iceland, which tends to have higher than average cinema attendance regardless of what is on.

However, in several European countries the film had a fairly low rate of penetration. This was despite generally positive reviews in the European press.

The film’s low attendance in many European states probably had more to do with distribution problems than the film’s portrayal of European others. An application by a consortium of 11 European distributors to the EU MEDIA programme’s Distribution Scheme was unsuccessful. Consequently, in Austria, for example, the film was only shown in 9 screens – compared to 94 for the latest Indiana Jones film. In Denmark, it was shown in only one cinema in the whole country.

Yet despite its distribution problems, In Bruges has steadily grown in popularity through a combination of word-of-mouth, social media and the increased exposure brought by winning several film awards, including a BATFA for best original screenplay. Although initial DVD sales were slow, the film has benefited from being made available on television and more recently on VOD platforms like iTunes and Netflix.

From mediated cultural encounters to real ones

One unexpected consequence of the film’s growing cult status is that it has helped to generate new interest in Bruges as a tourist destination. The hotel where Ken and Ray stay in the film now markets itself on the back of the film’s popularity, and there are several guides to the film’s locations on the Internet. This is reminder that films not only allow us to encounter other Europeans through screen media. They can also inspire us to encounter Europe for ourselves.

t Twitter f Facebook g Google+