Review: Man Bites Dog
Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde’s mockumentary-style satire manages to top all other entries into the genre, even Rob Reiner’s famous mocko This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Titled C’est Arrivé Près De Chez Vous (literally, ‘It Happened In Your Neighbourhood’) is better known by the title Man Bites Dog (1992), which is a joke in itself. The film is a strong criticism of journalism and the obsession the media have with documentation.
Poelvoorde plays Ben, a sadistic, motiveless serial killer who goes about his business of murdering, raping, disembowling and burying countless people. What makes it interesting is the addition of a camera crew, who follow Ben around and document his every move. They seem to have no moral stance; they don’t condone Ben’s actions, but they certainly don’t try to stop him. Early in the film, after a long day of murdering, Ben asks his colleagues out to dinner. They awkwardly refuse, attempting to make up excuses. Why? It seems obvious why; they are afraid he will kill them without warning, as he has so many people. But the crew begin to realize they are Ben’s friends, and even as some of them are accidentally murdered, they continue to stick with him, film his activities and even participate in them.
The latter is expressed in a gruesome rape scene three quarters of the way into the film. Surprisingly cut from the original Region 4 DVD I watched, I was surprised to see it included when I bought the Criterion DVD just a few days ago. We watch, horrified, as the camera crew and Ben himself penetrate a helpless woman and force her husband to watch, before (off-screen, thankfully) disembowling her and shooting her husband.
No, Man Bites Dog is not a pleasant film, and at times it can get rather grating and repetitive, but the originality more than makes up for that. The acting, too, which is superb for a few amateur filmmakers, supports the film’s tale and makes it all the more believable, and thus, more horrifying. Poelvoorde plays Ben with ease, making him a serial killer reflective of the seeming normality of society which is bursting to explode. He reminds me of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho; Bateman, unlike many serial killers in films, does not have a multiple personality disorder where he, without warning, descents into insanity. No, he is always insane and ready to pop, night and day, and so is Ben in this film. He does not have a darker side; he only has one side, and that is just normality. He is the same person when he is murdering people as he is when he is laughing, buying his friends’ drinks, and visiting his family: he is calm. Sure, there are moments when he gets irritated, but he is so used to murdering that he sees it as such a normal act as cooking dinner, taking out the trash or watching TV.
Man Bites Dog, like most student films from rookie filmmakers, contains many references to other films. While smashing a man’s head in in his bathroom, Ben asks the crew which film the scene reminds them of; the film’s successive sound recordists all end up getting murdered, a reference to the aforementioned This is Spinal Tap, and there is one reference which struck me the most. We see a man walking along before Ben jumps out and strangles him, then suddenly we realize the footage is video as it is rewound and played back, this time in slow motion. This is a clear reference to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), in which a couple raped and murdered is shown as video footage before being played back (a technique used again by Michael Haneke in Cache (2005)). These cultural references might not seem like references so much as simply referring to other films, considering that the film itself is a documentary.
The film as a whole, is interesting and worth seeing, but at times can be incredibly difficult to watch, especially as we realize the directors are trying to get us to sympathise and laugh with Ben. The small Belgian film has become incredibly popular; a cult favourite, and it remains, while not the best film to deal with the serial killer genre, nonetheless an incredibly smart, shocking and in-your-face explosive look at media influence and obsession.
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