BY ANDREW MOODY
There is something deeply compelling about Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2009 mockumentary Brüno, directed by Larry Charles, who he had collaborated with on the 2006 blockbuster Borat. Held together with an extraordinary performance by Cohen, who takes the Stanislavsky method to heights rarely seen before in cinematic history, what intrigues me after years of watching the movie is just how dangerous the film was to make. The working title, Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt, sums it up nicely. In it, Cohen plays a 19 year old, flamboyantly gay TV host, and travels around the world attempting to become famous with a series of staged, ambush interviews, designed to make the interviewee uncomfortable. The ambush interview had become famous in the nineties with Chris Morris’s scandalous Brasseye. From an attempted seduction of 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, to telling Ayman Abu Aita, the Lebanese terroristof the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that his “hair is sun damaged.”
“I want to be famous,” he tells him, “and I want the best guys in the business to kidnap me. Al Qaeda are so 2001!”
Already famous as Borat in America, Cohen found a wig that made his forehead look smaller, and was amazed that people didn’t recognise him as Brüno, despite the flimsy disguise.
Sacha Baron Cohen studied History with a focus on anti-semitism at Christ’s College Cambridge. He graduated in 1993 with an Upper-Second Class Honours, before moving into acting. As an undergraduate, Baron Cohen wrote his thesis on the American civil rights movement. Raised Jewish, he is fluent in Hebrew. In 1996, he took clown training in Paris, at the Ecole Phillipe Gaulier, studying under master-clown Phillipe Gaulier. Baron Cohen said of Gaulier, “Without him, I really do doubt whether I would have had any success in my field”. Gaulier said of Cohen: “He was a good clown, full of spirit”.
Cohen developed the art of the ambush interview with former creation Ali G on Da Ali G Show (1999). He received two Baftas in 1999, and Hollywood soon beckoned. He worked with director Larry Charles and several writers to prepare for his two epic performances, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and the bizarre and brilliant Brüno. which takes a more scattershot approach, developing complex comedic situations with an unknowing audience participating in the gag. Cohen stayed in his trailer for almost the whole six month shoot, terrified that the public would recognise him and spoil the joke. Later, Cohen suffered a five day panic attack before filming began on the sequel to Borat.
Brüno was banned in the Ukraine by the Minister for Culture and Tourism for “obscene language, homosexual scenes, and other scenes of offensive nature never shown in Ukraine.”
In 2009, Ayman Abu Aita launched a £110 million defamation suit against Cohen which was settled out of court in 2012. Cohen increased his security detail, after receiving death threats from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who told the media that “We reserve the right to respond in the way we find suitable against this man (Baron Cohen)” and the ambush interview was “a dirty use of our brother Ayman”.
The ingenuity of Brüno lies in its astonishing ability to craft a well structured and satisfying character arc around all the Jackass style documentary mayhem. A romantic sub-plot with his assistant Lutz (Gustav Hammarsten) is played for real, despite the hardcore satire, and presumably because the filmmakers thought that the most offensive thing they could shoot in their movie was a realistic love affair between two men.
“He gay, he gay,” Snoop Dogg wearily raps (in the charity music video that closes this outrageous film), “okay.”