In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 masterpiece, Orpheé, Heurtebise (François Périer) leads Orpheus (Jean Marais) into the Underworld to save Eurydice (Marie Déa), Orpheus’ wife. To do so, Heurtebise instructs Orpheus to put on a pair of gloves so that he may “pass through mirrors as if they were water”. Though initially hesitant, Orpheus walks up to the mirror, and passes through the looking-glass into another world. Time ceases to exist and both the characters and the audience enter the world of death – of “unreality” (Cocteau). Time and time again his films immerse themselves in this unreality in order to approach a universal truth. In his essay on Orpheé, Cocteau writes, “I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive”, though he is not alone in this sentiment. Although few casual moviegoers today have actually seen Cocteau’s work, his techniques and beliefs in regards to narrative and cinema have been absorbed into film grammar – so much so that it is hard to find a film that is not indebted to the French master in some capacity.
Take, for example, two films: Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. While neither of these contemporary Irish films bear any direct resemblance to Cocteau’s magical realist dramas, each one – with varying degrees of success – seeks to transport the audience to the same “no man’s land of twilight” Cocteau described, particularly the Underworld of Orpheé. To Cocteau, the Underworld is a sort of purgatory, where time ceases to exist and whose inhabitants are simply inert and inanimate. In both The Eclipse and In Bruges, the films’ protagonists live in a self-imposed state of purgatory that reflects Cocteau’s underworld, awaiting either judgment or reprieve. By looking at each film under the auspices of Cocteau, one can begin to judge how effectively each film renders its own “unreality”.
The Eclipse, written and directed by the Irish playwright, largely deals with grief and healing. Lead actor Ciarán Hinds leads a stellar cast as Michael Farr, a widowed father who is plagued by ghosts of his family members. One weekend, at a literary festival in his coastal Irish town, Michael falls in love with Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a reclusive writer coaxed by an old flame to tour her new book, The Eclipse. The book, which is about a character coping with her ability to see ghosts, hardly mentioned during the movie, except for in one scene where Lena does a reading from it. “When you see a ghost,” she reads, “something very interesting happens. Your brain splits in two. One side of you is rejecting what you’re seeing, because it doesn’t tally with our ordinary idea of reality. And the other side is screaming, ‘But this is real.’” In this scene lies the foundation for the entire film, which is itself a crossroads between life and death – an “eclipse”. On one hand, Michael could continue grieving over his lost love and her dying father for the rest of his life. However, his very existence itself proves that he has the capacity to change and a start a new life with Lena. The film, like many of McPherson’s plays, declines to answer that question, instead continuing his “series of dramatic meditations on life, loneliness and the possibility of redemption” (Jones). “And in that moment itself reality is collapsed and reconfigured in a way that changes you profoundly, although you’re not aware of it,” Lena reads. When executed well, this thought of redemption and catharsis The Eclipse intends to create can sustain a movie and satiate the audience, as everyone in the theater can imprint their own experiences onto the story, sharing in the experience of art in a visceral fashion.
Visually, The Eclipse stands apart from most films directed by playwrights. Inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining, McPherson uses long tracking shots throughout the film, haunting his characters. Though this is a normal tool of filmmaking and in no way implies any deeper meaning, McPherson’s pairing of these looming shots with key moments of stress or ghost-related plot points create an eerie feeling of voyeurism. When Lena reads from The Eclipse to the festivalgoers, the steadicam operator walks towards her from the back of the auditorium, building suspense and anxiety but also creating the sense that the audience is invading her personal space. McPherson uses this same trick whenever Michael hears a strange noise in his house. During the first of those occurrences, Michael walks down to his living room, searching for the source of the disturbance. While he walks, the camera follows behind him, and pans all about him, passing through open doorways and behind bookshelves before settling on him again in the living. The room is dimly lit and the walls are streaked with nightmarish shadows. This shot creates an anxious feeling in the viewer, reflecting Michael’s own fear and confusion. It is only when Michael leaves his house that this fear is diffused. The camera cuts to him walking out on his stoop, looking down the empty lanes of his suburb. There is nothing there. The deep blue hues of the dawn are a welcome contrast to the pitch-black darkness of Michael’s home, and their comfort allows a brief respite from the night’s terrors. “The power of cinema is the image”, McPherson states in an interview Vulture Magazine at The Eclipse’s Tribeca premiere, and his belief in that principle can be found in every frame the film (Hill). Like Cocteau, McPherson takes full advantage of these simple cinematographic tools and allows them to coalesce with the narrative itself, creating what should feel like a complete artistic statement from a budding auteur.
However, as is the case for many artists who try to do too many things at once, The Eclipse fails time and time again to live up to its director’s ambitions. According to Cocteau, “the closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic” (Cocteau). In Orpheé, Cocteau relied on “radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts” to “keep [his] feet on the ground” (Cocteau). This rule has become a standard in filmmaking, adopted by many filmmakers as a means of lulling the audience into a state of perceived comfort. So long as their sense of reality is merely challenged and not completely overthrown, they are more likely to accept the illusion created onscreen. Stanley Kubrick, McPherson’s hero and a fan of Cocteau’s work, applies these means in many of his films, though with slightly altered intent. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick explored the diseased underbelly of socialite Manhattan, while keeping the camera at a distance to observe the action as it unfolds (Wrigley). No matter how many bizarre things occur during Tom Cruise’s sexual odyssey, Kubrick’s camera refuses to get wrapped up in the intrigue, which would cause the film to lose focus and thereby compromising its intent. Looking at McPherson, it is clear that the student has studied the master, memorizing his lighting tricks and camera movements, but did not learn a thing.
For all of its grandiose posturing on existential themes, The Eclipse never manages to find a firm footing tonally. The film is a mixture of comedy, romance and horror, which is not an inherently bad decision. Many modern filmmakers are finding new and intriguing ways to blend genres and make truly original films out of seemingly old tropes. The issue with The Eclipse instead arises in the tone of the film, which occasionally ventures too far in the direction of 70’s exploitation horror to be taken seriously. When Michael sees the ghost of his dying father-in-law on the drive home from Lena’s home, the spirit does not sit idly by while Michael reflects on his misdeeds and whatnot. It attacks him, blood and puss flowing freely from its eyes and mouth, driving Michael off the road. While these hackneyed tricks and “pop-up” scares do provide cheap thrills, they also cause McPherson’s ghosts to come off as excuses to frighten the audience rather than the “visual manifestation of […] grief,” he intends (Galvin). The only time this idea is adequately depicted is near the end of the film, when Michael wakes from a dream to find the ghost of his dead wife sitting at the end of his bed. Compared to the various grotesque incarnations that preceded her, she looks oddly human. As they embrace, Michael’s hardened façade crumbles in a wellspring of tears, releasing every ounce of pain he has endured since his wife’s passing. She comforts him, and then disappears, leaving him to carry on without her. McPherson keeps his camera at a distance, allowing Hinds’ performance to take the lead and lending an ample amount of tenderness to this climatic moment. However, this is the only time that such a moment occurs in a film riddled with ghosts who belong in haunted houses and not in drama. McPherson’s misguided pandering to genre clichés obscures The Eclipse’s overall message, and dilutes the flow of its narrative. As a result, the concepts and ideas that make the film fascinating to think about are lost in translation, leaving the finished product a dull and forgettable experience.
After watching the muddled mire that is The Eclipse, In Bruges feels like a breath of fresh air. Although it is over twenty minutes longer and comparatively bleak, McDonagh’s film feels livelier because of the sharp dialogue, expert balance of comedy and drama and purposefully simple cinematography. He wastes no time in setting up the film’s tone and narrative, beginning with a terse voiceover, accompanied by a solemn montage of Bruges’ most famous sites. “After I’d killed him,” Ray (Colin Farrell) recites over Carter Burwell’s melancholic score, “I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off my hands in the bathroom of a Burger King and walked home to await instructions” (Beech). The remaining ninety-odd minutes of the film can be boiled down to a series of conversations, which take place all around the city and whose topics range from as topics as far-flung as virtue ethics and race wars. All the while McDonagh’s seamless blend of tragedy and wit binds each scene together to create a holistic work of art.
Taken as a whole, the film can be seen as a series of variations on a single theme: guilt and its effects on the soul. Each of the film’s three main characters’ lives intersects in Bruges, where all of their fates are eventually decided. In the beginning of the film, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray arrive in Bruges and await their boss, Harry Water’s (Ralph Fiennes) orders about what to do once the heat dies down in London. They visit the Groeningemuseum and spend a great deal of time looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgment. The painting depicts a scene from the Book of Revelations, where mankind is trapped in purgatory to await punishment for their sins. They discuss the idea of purgatory, which Ray jokingly refers to as “the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either.” To Ray, Bruges is the worst hell on earth – a place whose culture is foreign to him, and whose tourist-y atmosphere is so monotonous that he has no choice but to reflect on his guilt. For Ray, who accidentally murdered a child while “on a job”, Bruges is the purgatory – the place where he will face his Last Judgment. The guilt he feels for murdering that boy is so great that he cannot even listen to Ken tell a story about something as comedic as a lollipop man who knows Karate without associating the candy vendor with the boy. “[…] Because of the choices I made, and the course that I put into action, that little boy isn’t here anymore, and he’ll never be here again,” Ray tells Ken on a bench outside a church. “I’m trying to… been trying to get me head around it, but I can’t. I will have always have killed that little boy. That ain’t ever going away. Ever. Unless… maybe I go away.”
Over the course of the film, Ray’s suicidal thoughts continue to fester. One night, after a disastrous end to a date with Chloë, a Belgian girl who he falls for, Ray gets into a brief altercation with Eirik, Chloë’s ex who tries to rob him at gunpoint. The fight ends with Chloë taking Eirik to the hospital while Ray steals Eirik’s revolver, ammunition, and supply of cocaine, which he uses to keep his loneliness at bay for the night. The next day Ray leaves for a children’s park in order to kill himself, unaware that his boss has already ordered his execution, ordering Ken to pick up a gun from Yuri, a Belgian contact. At the moment of truth, when both guns are drawn, Ken stops Ray from pulling the trigger, claiming that Ray is not allowed to take his own life. As a Catholic, Ken cannot let his friend kill himself, thereby damning himself for eternity. Instead, Ken puts Ray on a train headed away from Bruges, and calls Harry, telling him that he’ll be waiting for him in town. Ken expects that Harry will kill him for letting Ray go, but his conscience tells him that it’s the right thing to do. “The boy had to be let go,” he tells Harry in a later scene, unaware that a series of incidents has landed Ray back in Bruges, “The boy has the capacity to change.” While Harry and Ken are older and set in their ways – Harry’s unwavering belief in honor is even medieval – Ray’s youth as well as his guilt allow him the change to lead a new life. “Excuse me,” Harry angrily retorts, “I have the capacity to change.” “Of course,” Ken responds callously, “you have the capacity to get fucking worse.” Ken understands that the years have hardened Harry, robbing him of all empathy. Not even a miracle could save Harry’s soul from the eternal fire.
This is where McDonagh’s second masterstroke comes into play. If In Bruges were filmed in the same way McPherson shot The Eclipse, it would still be a good film and would feature really pretty camerawork, but would run the risk of coming off too self-aware and pretentious for its own good – as independent or “art-house” films often do. Alternatively, much of the genius of In Bruges lies in its reliance on continuity editing – i.e. “classical cutting” – and handheld camerawork, which direct the audience’s attention towards the actors and the dialogue and create a realistic environment. Nearly all of the film’s dialogue heavy scenes – which amounts to most of the film – are filmed with regard to the 180–degree rule, alternating between the two subjects as they converse, cutting based on whoever is speaking, with an occasional reaction shot thrown in when needed. Two cameras are placed on either side of the action and film one character, so the director has a multitude of options to try out in the editing room. Since the audience’s brains are used to this style of editing, the cuts feel natural, and the focus remains on the dialogue. As Ken and Harry debate whether Ray should die, and whether or not Ken should be killed for letting Ray escape, the camera simply alternates between close-ups, allowing the audience to see every ounce of fantastic acting on display. Even when McDonagh breaks free of classical cutting, it’s to showcase the talent of his cast. During a six-minute long take, Ken convinces Harry over the phone that Ray has fallen in love with Bruges, only to be told that he must kill Ray the next morning. “I’m glad we were able to give him something […] because he wasn’t such as bad kid, was he?” Harry says, as Ken face darkens. The camera doesn’t get in the way. It simply records.
At the end of The Eclipse and In Bruges, Michael and Ray are both relieved of their strife, though in completely different ways. While Michael is finally able to let go of the ghosts that have haunted him throughout the film and starts to feel less “harassed by life”, Ray’s finally begins to appreciate life at the moment when his appears to be ending. In the aftermath of his shootout with Harry, he is lifted onto a stretcher and ushered into an ambulance. During this sequence, Ray hopes to keep on living, so that he might be able to go to the house of the child he murdered, “apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose,” because at least then he wouldn’t have to spend “the rest of eternity” in Bruges. Though he might never be able to go back in time and save that little boy, he might be able to, like Ken said, save the next one. “I really really hoped I wouldn’t die,” he says, as the light begins to fade and the credits start to roll. Cocteau ends Orpheé in a similar fashion, reveals the films’ inner truth during the climax of the film. Heurtebise and the Princess (Mariá Casares) send Orpheus back in time, erasing everything that has happened to him, and leaving him and Eurydice at peace. By returning him to his “mire”, they save him from the pains of immortality, which the dead poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe) must endure. Instead, they grant him a life, proving that, while the immortality of art is enticing, there is nothing more satisfying than the simple joy of living.
Sean Brennan studies Composition at Berklee College of Music. He is an avid consumer of everything film, and is thrilled to contribute to FUSION. His favorite directors include Alfonso Cuarón, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ingmar Bergman. This essay was originally written as his final project for the class Irish & Celtic Culture, Film & Music in December, 2014.
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Hill, Logan. “Conor McPherson on the Hottest Film at Tribeca.” Vulture. 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <http://www.vulture.com/2009/04/conor_mcpherson_on_the_hottest.
Jones, Chris. “REVIEW: ‘The Night Alive’ at Steppenwolf Theatre ★★★.” Chicagotribune.com. Chicago Tribune, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-0929-night-alive-review-20140930-column.html>.
Khairy, Wael. “Film Analysis: Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges”” The Cinephile Fix. The Cinephile Fix, 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. <https://cinephilefix.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/film-analysis-martin-mcdonaghs-in-bruges/>.
Wrigley, Nick. “Stanley Kubrick, Cinephile.” British Film Institute. British Film Institute, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/polls-surveys/stanley-kubrick-cinephile>.
The Eclise pic: http://www.slantmagazine.com/assets/film/eclipse.jpg