Okay, enough about violence against men. How about the really glaring lack of women?
By now, the Bechdel Test has made its way around the Interwebs as a sort of minimum standard for finding movies that, you know, actually seem to care about writing parts for female characters rather than casting women as objects, love interests, damsels in distress, etc. Rather than giving all the interesting lines and parts to men, wouldn’t it be nice if we got some women who got some attention from the scriptwriters for a change?
That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, just in case you’re expecting an answer other than “yes.”
What’s interesting about In Bruges is that it fails the test. Let’s ignore the fact that the two named female characters never talk to one another, and focus on the fact that there are only two named female characters. Would another well-rounded woman have really killed things?
In other movies, probably not, but in this one, yes. So many of the themes in the film revolve around peculiarly male relationships and roles; Ken and Ray have a relationship that works on many levels: coworkers, friends, mentor/student, father/son, guardian/guarded, confessor/confessee (which is ironic, really). Once Harry enters the mix, it becomes clear that he and Ken once (and may still) had the same relationships, but, due to Recent Events, have a very strong mortal enemies/blood feud dynamic as well. Oh, and there’s that whole “bad at handling emotional trauma in appropriate ways” theme that runs throughout everything. That’s a big one, that one is, especially for the young, immature, and very traumatized Ray.
All of these, needless to say, are stereotypically male relationships and traits, some of them (unless they start making female sons) necessarily so. Normally, I’d call this lazy filmmaking (seriously, if you’re relying on stereotypes and stock tropes to run your film . . .), but I don’t think that’s the whole story. From a character perspective, can anyone really see the conservative, by-the-book, respectable “matter of honor” family man Harry Waters employing a female assassin in his little business? No. Fine, change the character. It might remove some of the irony of having a very button-down crime boss, but so it goes. However, we the audience have a certain conception of women with guns in movies, and it’s not the brooding, damaged man who can’t talk about his psyche but needs to so very badly—no, it’s Emma Peel, Sexy Action Heroine. You can’t have that stock character even hinted at in this film, when what you need is ordinary people with ordinary human needs who have a rather distasteful line of work. Ken and Ray are not badasses by any stretch of the imagination; one’s a boring old widower without much of a reason to live, the other a shell-shocked young hedonist without much of a reason to live. Even the slightest hint of catsuits adds far more excitement than the script can stand; better keep the boring men.
Another theme, or parallelism, is the nature of the relationships the four main male characters have with their wives, girlfriends, and very lovely prostitutes. Ken’s wife was murdered, Harry’s a good family man when he’s not being evil, Jimmy the Dwarf’s happy so long as he’s got his coke and hookers, and Ray . . . well, Chloë’s nice, I guess we’ll sort of sort it out as we go along, right? Between the poles of hedonism, despairing and tragic loss, and hypocritical respectability, we have Ray, who really hasn’t got a clue except that this cute drug dealer sure beats being morose all the time. We can never be sure which pole he’s going to gravitate towards—it seems to be all three at once, really—but the contrast between Ray & Chloë and the other three relationships does show the possible paths they might take. Sometimes, it helps to put a few signs to show possible ways you might be developing a certain possibility, especially when nobody has any clue which one you’re going to take in the end.
Finally, and, to my little mind, most interestingly: humor (and, I suppose, horror) works best if there’s only one voice of reason against everyone going off the deep end. Monty Python knew this; how many of their sketches involve a seemingly sane person arguing with a world gone uniformly mad? The French Taunter or Castle Anthrax illustrate this perfectly; one sane knight verses a whole bunch of loonies, loonies come out on top. Marie the innkeeper (not the receptionist!) is our sane person, the opposite of all the nutters shooting at each other all around her. A nice, respectable married woman, about to bring life into the world (rather than take it out), keeping Christmas in her hotel, taking in the oddballs because there’s no room in any other inn (seriously, do we need any more Nativity allusions here?), able to say more in her silences than all the men around her do in their copious profanity, and the only one who seriously thinks the obvious and sensible solution of putting the guns down and going home will actually work. The men are all uniformly caught up in the insanity; Marie, and Marie alone, is the straight man, the bit of the normal world intruding on the dramatic action to emphasise just how very insane all this really is. She is the contrast, the person who stands outside and apart from the death and madness, from the men and their senseless bloodshed. Her femininity is a mark to set her apart from the madmen, a chance to speak impotently on behalf of reason.
So, all that said, does this mean that a really great film involving troubled female criminals couldn’t be made, or shouldn’t have been? Of course not. It’s just that that film wouldn’t have been In Bruges.