I was mightily impressed with 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen’s first feature film foray which saw the satirist expose the underbelly of American society. It was often crass and extreme, but there was a genuine intelligence behind the crude antics of the title character. It was also outrageously funny.
With BrÃ¼no, Cohen tries to repeat the exercise – this time in the guise of an unapologetically gay Austrian television fashion journalist called, you guessed it, BrÃ¼no.
Following a very embarrassing incident at a major fashion show, BrÃ¼no is excommunicated from the European fashion world and forced into exile in the US with his loyal assistant in tow. Their aim: to resuscitate his career and make him world-famous at any cost.
Much like with Borat, BrÃ¼no sees Cohen string a simple fictional storyline around interviews and interactions with real people while he is in the character of BrÃ¼no. He fools these people into believing that BrÃ¼no is a real person and somehow manages to get his subjects to reveal their prejudiced views on all kinds of issues.
Whether it’s convincing Paula Abdul to sit on Mexican labourers who act as furniture while she discusses her humanitarian work or telling an advocate of the ex-gay movement that he has “blowjob lips”, Cohen has no boundaries. Much of the humour is simply from seeing people being conned into these situations and their struggling to deal with BrÃ¼no’s unbelievable comments and questions.
Some of the scenarios are so outrageous and daring that it can be difficult to believe that they were not set up. The film’s producers insist, however, that it’s all real and that Cohen and the crew literally risked life and limb to capture what they did on film.
The movie is genuinely funny and more extreme than Borat (you can expect a twirling, talking penis to show up) but has generated much debate over its take on gay issues and the stereotypical nature of BrÃ¼no himself. The studio has responded that the movie aims to “shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia.”
But one has to question if the camp, narcissistic, anal-sex-obsessed, fashion-mad, leather and dildo-wielding BrÃ¼no (complete with a selection of live gerbils) does much to “shed light” on homophobia.
While gay audiences and our more liberal straight counterparts may see BrÃ¼no as an obviously unrealistic satire of the stereotype of gay men, those less enlightened may well perceive this as a reinforcement of their ideas of the perversity of gay life. In the same vein, those with a liberal leaning will be horrified (while laughing, mind you) at the ignorance and prejudice of many of the subjects, while those with more bigoted views will probably not find these perspectives particularly inappropriate.
An example: When BrÃ¼no unexpectedly starts kissing another man in the middle of a ‘cage fight’, the audience members, bursting with testosterone and beer, turn nasty; trying their best to attack the two men. While we may be shocked at their extreme reaction (they have no problem seeing two men beat each other to a pulp, but are mortified by man-on-man intimacy) some would see their violent response as entirely justified.
Unlike films such as Another Gay Movie, which are made by gay filmmakers and targeted at a gay market, BrÃ¼no will be seen by a largely mainstream audience. There’s something slightly uncomfortable about a heterosexual man making fun – however well-intentioned – of gay people.
It is one thing for someone within a minority or community to do this, but quite another for someone from outside the group to do so. That’s not to say that this can’t or shouldn’t be done, but it certainly suggests a more critical eye be cast on the work in question.
BrÃ¼no uncomfortably flits between the flippancy of broad fictional comedy to the more serious perspective of documentary satire (think Bowling For Columbine) with gay abandon, blurring these genres and ultimately confusing the film’s intention. And this is the crux of the issues that I have with BrÃ¼no; its meaning and enjoyment is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It will resonate with many people holding many varied perspectives; the bigots will find much to laugh at, as will gay audience members.
What BrÃ¼no does successfully achieve is to entertain and tackle subjects that few other films dare do. It makes us confront images and topics that mainstream film traditionally would rather politely ignore. It doesn’t tell us what to think or what to believe. But it will get people talking. And sometimes that’s an achievement in its own right. See it and decide for yourself.