I waited for years to get to Bruges after watching the dark comedy In Bruges.
The film is beautifully written, perfectly acted, and shot in the best place possible — a town that has been there for ages but didn’t get the attention it apparently deserved. The movie changed that.
Suddenly, people were interested and putting Bruges, the largest city in the Flemish region of Belgium, on their bucket lists. Martin McDonagh’s film (he wrote and directed it) did to Bruges what Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did to Savannah, Georgia.
I wanted to put as my Facebook status “In Bruges,” the way people do with their Foursquare check-ins in Rome or New York or Starbucks. But if I was really going to be true to the spirit of the film, it’d have to be, “In f*cking Bruges!” and let out a hundred more expletives before reaching my word-count limit.
The story of two assassins having to leave London and lie low in Bruges was filmed so beautifully that one cannot help but fall in love with the town and all its lakes, swans, bridges, restaurants and chocolate shops.
You think its people are quirky, then you realize you’re thinking of the characters in the movie.
The main protagonist hates it — accidental tourist Ray (Colin Farrell), and the other assassin loves it, happy tourist Ken (Brendan Gleeson) whose attitude is, “Now that we’re stuck in Bruges for two weeks, we might as well enjoy it.” Even their boss Harry with his anger issues (Ray Fiennes — what a superb performance!) has a soft spot for Bruges.
When Ken tells him that Bruges is not Ray’s thing, an incredulous Harry says, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not 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? How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?”
This is the guy who ordered the shooting of the priest and of Ray. Fine, he loves Bruges. In one of the movie’s memorable dialogues, Ray and Ken are in the town square, Grote Markt, and Ken looks up at at the belfry with its 366 steps.
KEN: Coming up?
RAY: What’s up there?
KEN: The view.
RAY: The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here. KEN: Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world. RAY: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.
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The first time I was in Bruges was for work in 2013. The second time, months later, was vacation, and a friend living in Amsterdam and I drove to Bruges in his camper and recreated stills from the film on our DIY walking tour (the tourism office provides you with a map), but unfortunately we didn’t have a midget with us. It was a little less than a three-hour drive from Amsterdam.
I started a game called “You know you’re Asian when….” He responded with “You know you’re British when….” My first answer was, “You know you’re Asian when you take pictures of your food before eating it…and you know you’re a Filipino when you take five pictures from the same angle!” I don’t remember what his comebacks were.
But back to Bruges. I love this town. I love it in a way that I could set my luggage and stay. And I really don’t say that of many places — not even Paris or New York or London. The only other big-small city I have ever said that of was Savannah with its squares every few blocks and its Bird Girl statue.
The walking tour starts, of course, at the 13th-century belfry in the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and takes you all around Bruges, including the hotel where Ray and Ken are holed up, the Relais Bourgondish Cruyce Hotel; the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where they were not allowed to film (they filmed at the Jerusalem Church, also in Bruges).
It also goes to the Groeninge Museum, where Ray feels pangs of guilt as he looks at Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Last Judgment”; Jan Van Eyckplein, where the 15th-century painter Eyck’s statue stands; Cafedraal, where Ray and drug dealer on the set Chloe have a date; the Minnewater Bridge where Harry strides across, his determined face set with murder and a gun in his coat pocket; and Vismarkt, the old fish market, where Harry and Ray try to kill each other.
Of the three main characters in the movie, my favorite is Harry. He’s the angriest, he’s got the funniest dialogues (especially when he buys a gun from the Russian) and even as he presumably orders the killings as the two assassins’ boss, he’s…well, principled.
HARRY: Not only have you refused to kill the boy (Ray), you even stopped the boy from killing himself, which would’ve solved my problem, which would’ve solved your problem, which sounds like it would’ve solved the boy’s problem.
KEN: It wouldn’t have solved his problem. HARRY:Ken, if I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would’ve stuck the gun in me mouth. On the fucking spot!
Sometimes, you drive through Europe and the small, medieval towns all look the same. But not Bruges, not its architecture, history, residents or even the people that visit it. In Bruges — the movie and the town — nothing is simple, especially not love, atonement or existence.