Saturday, February 25, 2023

Nastiness, nihilism, humanity: thoughts on In Bruges (and Mukundan Unni Associates)

(My latest Economic Times column)

In a shiny new instance of cultural Woke-ism gone mad, passages from Roald Dahl’s work have been rewritten to protect the quivering sensibilities of those who live mainly for the joy of being triggered or offended. Thus words like “flabby” and “crazy” are dropped, gender-neutral terms are senselessly added. All in the name of keeping young readers in a mythical safe-space bubble where they are never exposed to the nastier realities of the world, or of human nature.

This got me thinking again about films that lie along the continuum between mild political incorrectness and outright nihilism – refusing to offer a comforting moral or to tell viewers those old untruths: that everything always turns out for the best, that the wicked are always punished, that people don’t do or say terrible things to each other.

Take the new Malayalam film Mukundan Unni Associates. It has its heart firmly in the wrong place (I mean that as a compliment), being a celebration of an amoral man who cares only about getting ahead – and who is not, within the narrative at least, made to account for his sins. (The closest thing to a “message” here is that everyone, at every level of society, is potentially corruptible or already deeper in the abyss than one realises.) I wasn’t thrilled by the film – I thought it relied too much on voiceovers, could have gone further in its final stretch, and Vineeth Srinivasan’s lead performance felt a little one-dimensional – but it came as a relief, at a time when people are always looking for positive “takeaways”, to experience something so cynical.

I have also been thinking – with all the attention garnered by playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin – about McDonagh’s screen debut, the 2008 In Bruges: a magnificent example of how savage humour, when done well, can shine a light on the darkest corners of our minds and hearts, and still allow glimpses of the moral edifices we have built for ourselves.

At times the In Bruges screenplay feels like a compendium of insults directed at every group you can think of. A short list of things said by the protagonist Ray (a character we are meant to care about) includes “Youse are a bunch of f***ing elephants” (said to three fat – or as the Dahl bowdlerisers would have it, “enormous” – American tourists whom he tries to dissuade from going up a winding staircase) and “Would you ever think about killing yourself because you’re a midget?” (to a short-statured actor who would rather be called “dwarf” anyway… in addition to not being asked such questions). Ray also gratuitously uses the phrase “like a big fat retarded black girl on a seesaw” and the derogatory “poof” (slang for homosexual). Alongside the running theme of his disdain for the town of Bruges (and for Belgium more generally), he offends a local girl by telling a Belgian joke about the country being best known for child molesters and chocolate.

Elsewhere, a character, in a fit of rage, screams “YOU’RE an inanimate f***ing object!” at his wife, before apologising and then heading off to kill someone. (That clicking sound you hear? It’s a hundred virtuous reviewers using the well-worn phrase “toxic masculinity”.)

The black humour of In Bruges naturally won’t be to all tastes, but for those who do appreciate it (and the film has a big cult following), how does any of this work? Well, apart from the fact that it is very funny (and the parts of our reptilian brains that process humour don’t necessarily cooperate with the parts that handle morality), there is the context that Ray is a melancholy, suicidal man tormented by the memory of a botched job – he is as vulnerable as the Michelle Williams character Cindy was in Blue Valentine when she told a droning, deadpan joke about a child-killer. However nasty Ray gets, it’s hard to see him as gloating or being in a position of power over his targets.

But equally, there is the sense – for anyone who really gets into this film and doesn’t let outrage interfere with the characters’ inner truths – that this is honest behaviour, and even the most tasteless lines reflect something perceptive about people, how they talk and behave and view others. And how even strong generalisations – the stereotype of the overenthusiastic but boorish American tourist, for instance – can be based on kernels of truth.

This is also, if you look at it in a certain way, a story with a solid ethical compass: nearly everything that happens is the consequence of a clear moral rule followed by a generally awful man named Harry who has decreed that if someone should kill a child, even if it is a horrible accident, then that person mustn’t go on living. The cliché about everyone containing multitudes has rarely been as well realised as in this story about people who do ghastly things but who are also relatably human, with many of their finer senses intact. If the expurgators were to turn their attention to a screenplay like In Bruges, they would destroy a narrative that tells us more about humanity (and redemption) than a number of sterile, inoffensive, life-affirming stories could.

No comments:

Post a Comment