Compared to Amsterdam, the city of Bruges, Belgium is relatively unknown to American tourists. While travelers undoubtedly have heard of the city, it has never been a big travel destination. It doesn’t have the big city allure of Paris or London, nor does it have legalized marijuana and prostitution. It also doesn’t help that few films have been set in the city, so very few Americans have been exposed to the city outside of history and geography classes. However, this all changed in 2008 when Martin McDonagh released his directorial debut, In Bruges. Before this film Bruges was nothing more than an idea to most Americans, but In Bruges was the first film to ever make the city feel like a real and authentic city. The film marked the first time that many American tourists, including myself, ever got a real glimpse at Bruges and its unique culture. The city was no longer an abstract idea in the back of our heads but rather a fully fleshed out place that we could imagine visiting. While there are obviously exceptions, I know that I never would have visited Bruges had it not been for McDonagh’s fantastic film. So in preparation for my trip, I decided to do a repeat viewing of the film in order to compare my own experiences to In Bruges’s portrayal of the city.
Where Amsterdam has never seemed to have a well-rounded portrayal of its culture on film, Bruges is perfectly encapsulated by McDonagh’s film. While many might assume that Bruges is boring thanks to Ray’s (Colin Farrell) constant complaints about how boring and shitty the city is, in reality this is just McDonagh poking fun at the immense misconception that the majority of the public has of Bruges. Ray represents those that underestimate Bruges because it is a quiet and quaint town, while Ken (Brendon Gleeson) is meant to embody the more educated folk who are aware of the specific charms that the city holds. his is perfectly encapsulated by Ken and Ray’s differing nightlife desires. Ray wants to go out and get piss drunk, just like the many American tourists that visit Europe in search of partying and merriment. Meanwhile, Ken wants to continue exploring, believing that the sights are that much prettier at night. Ken understands that Bruges isn’t the type of city that you visit for its party scene, it’s a city that you should appreciate for the history and the sights.
It was funny, though, to discover that both Ken and Ray were right, because, much to my surprise, Bruges has a pretty active nightlife. While it obviously doesn’t compare to the likes of Amsterdam, the city has more than a few bars and clubs that are more than up to the task if you are in search of some lively carousing. If anything, this is the only part of Bruges that is misrepresented in the film. The film makes Bruges seem a decent amount more boring than it is in real life. While this is understandable in terms of the story and how it affects Ray’s character arc, it would be a shame for people to miss out on this city simply because of this perception of Bruges as painfully boring.
However, the film is right on the nose when Harry (Ralph Fiennes) exclaims that Bruges is “a fairy-fucking-tale town!” As soon as you enter the town you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a 13th century medieval village. All of the streets are paved with cobblestone, there are little to no skyscrapers, and there are a wide variety of different canals encompassing the city. Old churches and hospitals that date back hundreds of years surround all of the major city centers, while newer stores like H&M and Apple inhabit buildings that long pre-date their inception. It’s interesting, because most European cities have the old part of town that you can go visit and walk around in but then also have their more modern, urban centers where most businesses and schools are based out of. In Bruges though, it is impossible to tell which buildings are newer and which are centuries old. Every single street feels like it has been perfectly preserved for centuries on end, even though it would be impossible for every single building to survive for so long. I continually tried to guess which buildings were replicas, or imitations, but I quickly discovered that I had embarked on a wild goose chase with no way of determining definitive answers.
So I am happy to report that In Bruges actually does justice to its titular city. For once, a film actually crafts a realistic and genuine depiction of its setting. Rather than distort the city to fit into his storyline, McDonagh respects the area and depicts it as an actual living and breathing city with its own unique culture. He doesn’t focus on one or two specific quirks of the city, but rather paints an honest portrait of an often-ignored town. That’s a lot more than Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo’s portrayal of Amsterdam can claim.
Next Stop: Berlin!