“A Curious Thing”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lcpyhd5LHI – In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008). Murder attempt interrupted by suicide attempt.
In his essay ‘On the Essence of Laughter and, in general, on the Comic in the Plastic Arts’, Baudelaire gives two definitions of what he terms “caricature”: one, he says, deals with facts (Baudelaire, 147). The other kind is, simply, funny; it is “a curious thing… [possessing an] indefinable element of beauty even in works which are intended to represent his proper ugliness – both moral and physical – to man!”; a beauty that is accompanied by an “incorrigible mirth” (Baudelaire, 147). With this second kind, Baudelaire seems to be touching on a dichotomy central to the subgenre of dark comedy.
Baudelaire’s essay – which may be seen as an attempt to create a philosophy of laughter – is constantly examining the apparent contradictions and conflicts which he believes are at the root of laughter (Baudelaire, 148, 151, 153, 157). However, his theory on why we laugh – which he expands from earlier writings on the subject – is coherent: essentially, we laugh because we observe mental and/or physical “failings”, over which we believe ourselves to be superior (Baudelaire, 151-3). This does not seem entirely accurate; despite this, his pursuing of dichotomies is relevant to dark comedy.
Dark comedies inherently rely on a contrast: that of comedy (associated with ‘lighter’ emotions and themes) and darkness (‘heavier’ emotions and themes). The genre hopes that we find humour in the juxtaposition between the two. In Bruges is one such film. Juggling heavy themes – what exactly constitutes a good person? Can redemption be achieved? Does an appreciation of art and beauty have some spiritual significance in humans? Is Bruges boring? – with a ridiculousness bordering on the surreal, the film defies easy definitions as to why exactly it is funny. To say that it is because we view ourselves as superior to its characters seems inaccurate.
In the clip selected, one of the characters, Ken, is going to kill his partner-in-crime, Ray, having been ordered to do so by their boss. Realising Ray is suicidal, he stops. They then discuss the issue in a children’s play park. Were Baudelaire correct, we would laugh at this because we see ourselves as superior to the hitmen, one ordered to kill his friend, one suicidal. Rather, the humour would seem to arise from the contrasts and ridiculousness of the scene: an adult discussion about murder and suicide takes place in a child’s space; the discussion itself verges on childish; a hitman is thwarted by his target wanting to do his job for him. This is consistent with the rest of the film, which frequently shows people in their “proper ugliness”, while they are surrounded by an “indefinable element of beauty” in the setting itself, and in the friendship between Ken and Ray.
It is this contrast itself which we find funny, not our assumed superiority over the characters.