Mayor Renaat Landuyt could well have had Colin Farrell’s inept assassin Ray in mind when he decided that the medieval city of Bruges should be a little more discerning about how it is portrayed on celluloid.
“Bruges is a shit-hole,” Ray declares in the 2008 black comedy In Bruges, which ends in blood splattered mayhem in one of the city’s picturesque Gothic squares.
The film brought legions of fans to the Belgian city, best known for its canals, lace shops and medieval town-houses; they have been followed by many other production teams keen to turn their cameras on the chocolate-box version of Old Europe. But Mr Landuyt is concerned that the boom in shoots in Bruges may not be in the best interests of his city.
“If we want to protect the quality of life and the quality of the Bruges trademark, then we need to be stricter than in the past,” he was quoted as saying by the Flanders News website. “We must accept that Bruges is an exclusive trademark. They used to say: ‘Bruges is a museum.’ We have to be careful this doesn’t become: ‘Bruges is a film studio’.”
The Flemish daily, De Standaard, reported that the city had already turned down requests from some television shows, with Mr Landuyt declaring that unless strict criteria were put in place, “Bruges would be on television every day”. Exactly which films and TV shows will be deemed “exclusive” enough to meet Bruges’ standards remains unclear.
In Bruges director Martin McDonagh is not the only Brit to take his cameras into the narrow lanes, cobbled streets and historic buildings of the city. Much of the BBC’s recently screened War of the Roses drama, The White Queen, was filmed inside the perfectly preserved medieval town halls and churches of Bruges, some of which stood in for Westminster Hall and the Tower of London.
Film-makers also come from much further afield: the city played host this summer to Bollywood actors Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma, who will appear in the film Peekay – out next year – about star-crossed Indian lovers who meet while studying in Bruges. Many Belgian television shows also make use of the city’s atmospheric locations: look down the canals from certain angles over the pretty bridges and you feel that the place has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
But inevitably the trailers, trucks, sets and cameras do cause some disruption to both the residents and the thousands of tourists who pour from trains and coaches each day. Filming of The White Queen temporarily shut down some sites and museums.
In Bruges, meanwhile, remains a firm favourite for visitors. Despite the city representing something of a purgatory for Colin Farrell’s Ray, as the character grappled with the guilt of a contract killing gone wrong, Bruges emerges as one of the stars of the film, the snow-covered streets glowing under gentle Christmas lights. Even Ray eventually warmed to the place, especially after his partner in crime, Ken, pointed out the city’s other attraction: more than 300 hundred different types of beer.