In defence of BRUNO


Review by Brad Nguyen

The comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen traffics in causing conservative outrage yet time and time again he courts criticism from what might be badly defined as the Liberal Media. SBC’s latest film, Bruno, in which he plays a flamboyant Austrian fashion journalist on a quest for celebrity stardom in America, is designed to make fun of American homophobia but critics are still calling Bruno a homophobic film. Are they right?It certainly seems as if a line has been crossed. SBC’s previous film Borat was well-received by critics whereas Bruno is currently scoring 54% on Metacritic.

Anthony Lane of the New Yorker writes:

In his relentless, unmistakably Anglo-Freudian insistence on the genital and the anal, Baron Cohen takes the double entendre and strips it to a single one, placing in full view what used to be a smirking aside. Forget satire; this guy doesn’t want to scorch the earth anymore. He just wants to swing his dick.

I’m afraid that “Brüno” feels hopelessly complicit in the prejudices that it presumes to deride. You can’t honestly defend your principled lampooning of homophobia when nine out of every ten images that you project onscreen comply with the most threadbare cartoons of gay behavior. A schoolboy who watches a pirated DVD of this film will look at the prancing Austrian and find more, not fewer, reasons to beat up the kid on the playground who doesn’t like girls. There is, on the evidence of this movie, no such thing as gay love; there is only gay sex, a superheated substitute for love, with its own code of vulcanized calisthenics whose aim is not so much to sate the participants as to embarrass onlookers from the straight—and therefore straitlaced—society beyond.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes:

We all know, for example, that it’s wrong to laugh at foreigners, that making fun of their accents and customs is worse than passé. But Borat, with his outlandish attitudes and offensive behavior, granted an exemption to anyone who was in on the joke.

The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.

And closer to home, Doug Pollard of JOY 94.9 writes:

I’m sure Cohen means well and really wants to really expose prejudice, and he certainly doesn’t lack courage. Unfortunately, his intentions are utterly irrelevant. Only the public reactions count. Sophisticated urban audiences may ‘get’ the anti-homophobia messages, if they’ve been appropriately coached by their newspapers (and can manage to sit through the movie).

Most audiences won’t. They’ll just see another stupid ridiculous queen stereotype trying to ‘shove homosexuality down our throats’, and some will go out and look for one to bash, or worse.

One theme here is that audiences who enjoy Bruno are laughing at gay people and will murder the first one they find after leaving the cinema. Yes, this is actually an argument that I must address. While it is true that SBC plays an extreme caricature of a gay man, it is as clear as day that the performance is laden with irony. Reading irony in Bruno doesn’t require an Ivy League degree. An inherent part of appreciating Bruno is the knowledge that Bruno the character is a performance and not a reflection of reality. We laugh because Bruno is so ridiculous he can’t possibly be a real person, yet these real people buy him as real because he fits their preconceptions. In one scene we see Bruno cradling his adopted baby with a dildo contraption: it’s funny because it’s not true.

But let’s take the example of the exceptionally stupid audience member who is not “in on the joke”: He’s lacks a sense of irony and is profoundly homophobic. Beyond the fact that there are enough pointed reaction shots in Bruno to make it clear that being homophobic is ridicule-worthy, it is also somewhat revolutionary that this hypothetical audience member has willingly paid money to spend over an hour watching intensely homoerotic material including a fairly extended close up shot of a large penis swinging around in circles. It won’t turn anyone gay, but if you appreciate the film I’m guessing you will come out more comfortable with the eroticised male body, more willing to react to extreme expressions of sexuality with bemusement rather than violence. It is very likely that you will feel slightly uncomfortable too but why not? It is often an exciting thing to be confronted with that which the culture represses. That is, unless you are Anthony Lane who reveals his prudishness when he asserts that a double-entendre is somehow more sophisticated than an exposed schlong and inadvertently casts his own judgment on people who don’t practice sexuality according to social norms.

SBC’s appeal to the scatological disguises the satirical nature of Bruno of which there are two main components. The first component consists in people reacting against Bruno. Confronted with the manifestation of every preconception about ‘the gay lifestyle’, the behaviours of real life people exposes latent homophobia (as in the case of supposed libertarian Ron Paul who uses the hilarious synonym “crazy as a queer” after Bruno’s attempt at seduction) and not-so-latent homophobia (as in the film’s brilliant climax in which a crowd of wrestling fans become enraged after a match evolves into a makeout session).

The second component consists in people agreeing with Bruno. This is the subtler aspect of SBC’s satire and the possibly more important aspect as it problematises the American myth of exceptionalism. Both Borat and Bruno are coded as Others, starting from the concept that America is a symbol for all that is “good” in the world. Hence Borat comes from a “strange” middle-eastern country immediately bringing to mind terrorist undertones. Hence Bruno standing for “effeminate Europe” as opposed to “masculine, heterosexual America”. But SBC then problematises these binaries: Borat and Bruno aren’t really Others. They are products of America. For example, Borat is defined by his fixation on Pamela Anderson while SBC defines himself through American celebrity culture. (“I’m like the Austrian Zac Efron only I have a bleached arschholle!”) When the “ordinary Americans” that Bruno comes across agree with him the point of the satire is that Bruno’s most objectionable qualities aren’t attributable to his sexuality but to American culture. In possibly the film’s finest moment, Bruno interviews parents who are trying to get their very young children modelling jobs. Bruno asks, “Does your child like lit phosphorus?”, to which the parent replies, “Loves it.” It’s moments like these that suggest the Bruno’s narcissism, his obsession with celebrity culture, his superficiality, his overt sexuality, his political apathy are not homosexual traits: they are downright American traits.

Bruno is by no means a perfect movie. It hits weak spots when it vears from the two satirical poles I have outlined. For example, I didn’t quite see the point of Bruno making unwitting insensitive remarks to a talk show audience consisting of mainly African-Americans and the scripted moments didn’t quite grab me though I understand them to be a necessary limitation of adapting SBC’s television personas to a feature film setting. But when Bruno hits a mark it is among the funniest things you may see this year. Even if the critics don’t quite get it.


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

Jesus is Magic (Liam Lynch, 2005)

The Youtube clip below is titled (unironically I assume) Sarah Silverman and her racist jokes. The clip itself is very funny.

1 Comment

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One response to “In defence of BRUNO

  1. James Douglas

    Without having seen the film, I’d guess I broadly agree.

    The controversy (as it is) reminds me of when, around the release of Borat, the Kazakhstan government actually treated the film, and Cohen, as through they could do actual damage to the nation.
    As I recall, people seemed to mostly agree that this was a laughable belief.

    Since Cohen, it seems, it pretty much pulling the same trick in both films, it is at the least logically inconsistent to claim that when his character represent Kazakhstan it is politically harmless, but when he represent gay people it is politically offensive (and that’s ignoring the myriad difficulties associated with treating gay people as a homogeneous group along the lines of an ethnic group or nation).

    Politics aside, I’m still nervous about seeing the film. I spent much of Borat covering my eyes and ears. And, through I love him as a performer, I still think there’s something ethically dubious about Cohen’s whole approach.

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