Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is among the best films made in the last few years. Two hitmen receive the order from their boss to clear out from London and take some time off in Bruges. What all three men end up meeting there has nothing to do with tourism — or rather, it has to do with tourism of the metaphysical kind. Through a series of events, they even out the numerous accounts with each other and the world, and each of them dies.
The dialogue is hilarious and the visuals and the score are heartbreaking. Although it’s never mentioned, nor included in the soundtrack, Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt is a ghostly presence in the film. In many ways, In Bruges is continuation of Die tote Stadt.
The opera was based on Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, the new translation of which was published in paperback earlier this year, with the introduction by none other than Alan Hollinghurst.
“Every evening Hugues retraced the same route, following the line of the quais. […] In the muted atmosphere of the waterways and the deserted streets, Hugues was less sensitive to the sufferings of his heart, his thoughts of his dead wife were less painful. He had seen her, heard her again more clearly, finding the face of his departed Ophelia as he followed the canals, hearing her voice in the thin, distant song of the bells. In this way the town, once beautiful and beloved too, embodied the loss he felt. Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.”
An excerpt from the novel — the tone would fit any sequence of the film In Bruges.
If the opera and the narrative of a grieving husband who can’t forget his dead wife and recreates her double in another woman sounds a lot like Hitchcock‘s Vertigo, you are not far off. It’s likely that the novel influenced the D’entre les morts (The Living and the Dead) by Boileau and Narcejac, which Hitchcock adapted in 1958 as Vertigo.
Seeing Korngold’s opera greatly expands the understanding of these two films — and probably adds to the viewing of DuMaurier-Hitchcock’s Rebecca as well. It’s an opera that keeps living through other works of art.
But don’t go to Bruges. Until it’s time.