Shadow of a Doubt (1943), this was another film that I attempted to “review” way back when and the same thing ended up happening, my brain stalled and it ended up being a half assed paragraph. Links need not apply. So consider this a second attempt at me trying to redeem myself, as this is another film that most defiantly deserves a more valiant effort on my part. Man Bites Dog is one of my favorite films ever. I’ve been a fan and champion of this film since the 90’s, matter of fact I have 3 copies of it, a VHS I recorded off if IFC way back when, an official VHS and the Criterion DVD. I’ve watched it so many times that it’s to the point now where I think I could probably recite the entire script in French. Or at least watch it without any subtitles. If I were ever to make a “top 10 of all time“ list, it would easily have a secure spot. It’s a film that, no matter how many times I watch it, the impact it had during the first viewing is never lost. Truth be told I’d say that over the years it’s become even more potent, especially when you compare the media and “reality” TV obsessed culture of today with what it was like back in 1992, the fact that this film turns 20 years old this year makes it all the more endearing. Not to mention that with all the “found footage” and faux documentary styled films being hot commodities these days, thanks in part to the success of one particular franchise (the name escapes me at the moment, something to do with extracurricular activates I think), a film like this was way ahead of it’s time and then some, and 20 years later it still stands as one of the most unique and original, not just mockumentaries ever, but films in general.
Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous, “It Happened In Your Neighborhood“) follows young filmmakers Remy and Andre (the films actual writers and directors Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel) as they film a documentary on their subject Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde, also the films third writer and director), a serial killer. The crew films Ben practicing his “trade” while he describes his preferred methods, what works, what doesn’t, what victims are more profitable, things of that nature. Along the way we’re introduced to Ben’s friends and family, while Ben waxes philosophic on life, poetry, boxing, and pretty much whatever else is on his mind when the camera’s are rolling. He also helps fund the low budget production with the money from his victims. At first just mere observers, simply filming Ben, Remy and Andre become increasingly more involved in his actions, while other complications and occupational hazards arise as a result of the dangers of making a film about a subject like Ben and his line of “work”.
Much more than just a mockumentary, Man Bites Dog is a film that wears a lot of hats, and they all fit quite nicely, as this is a film that works on so many different levels, mockumentary, black comedy/media satire and as social commentary. As a mockumentary it works because of the overall presentation. Shot in grainy black and white, featuring interviews with Ben’s family and friends, the constant sight of the crew and film equipment, plus the fact that everyone involved in the production uses their real first names, it all adds to the sense that this could be a legitimate documentary, filming this mans day to day life in real time, while also giving us a glimpse at some of the hassles that filmmakers go through while going into an under funded production. What’s even more unique about the film is, without giving too much away, as the film moves forward, certain events unfold that make the later part of the film starts to play out like more traditional, dramatic narrative, all the while the documentary aesthetic is never lost. I always thought that was a pretty neat way of telling the story of it‘s subject, and Ben is quite the “subject”. Violence aside, I think one aspect of the film that disturbed people the most was (and I’m only guessing) they found themselves getting to like Ben a little. If you take away the fact that he’s a murderer, Ben comes off as a pretty likable guy. He fancies himself to be fairly sophisticated, writes and recites poetry, plays music, he’s funny and charming, loves his family and treats his mother with the utmost respect. He defiantly loves the camera as well, and is charismatic enough that even him spouting off about something as benign as the look of public housing is never dull. Of course there is an obvious arrogance about him, and it’s impossible to forget what he does for a living, as we could be seeing him and the crew drinking and having a good time yet seconds before he was shooting someone in the head, and there are parts of the film where you’ll start to feel very nervous for the filmmakers, wondering what Ben’s reaction will be if he get irritated at something, no matter how friendly him and the crew might be. One of the more fascinating aspects of Ben’s personality is the way he views killing. A lot of what he does is for profit, a big reason why he prefers to target the elderly (they‘re “loaded“, according to him), and the reason he avoids young couples and suburban homes. After he murders an entire suburban family, upon realizing there’s nothing of any value in the home and after a crew member mentions they’re running out of cash for film Ben comments “The problem’s not cash. That, I have. It’s those three innocents. There oughta be a law. Well, I’m… I’m not… I’m not a lunatic.” Consider it a twisted sense of morality.
As a black comedy, Man Bites Dog works because well, it’s frankly quite hilarious. Obviously it’s not everyone’s style of humor, but there is something morbidly humorous about Ben describing his techniques or the way he so casually talks about how he usually starts off the month by knocking off a postman, the bone density of midgets, or how “scaring” an elderly woman to death by inducing a heart attack seconds after the act was easier on her and her neighbors, as it saves them from the noise, and saves him a bullet. One of the best lines in the film comes after Ben shoots a night watchman at a construction site, and after complaining about the cheaply made concrete says “I once buried two Arabs in a wall over there... facing Mecca, of course.” One of the more infamous scenes comes when Ben is trying out a gun holster the crew has bought him for his birthday, he accidentally shoots a guest at the table yet immediately resumes eating and asks for more champagne like nothing has happened. As a whole the films general premise could be seen as a parody, albeit an extreme one, on the media’s fascination with violence and the public’s consumption of it. This idea is expanded on when Ben and the crew run into another killer who’s being followed by a film crew of his own. There are actually a few instances where they run into other killers, and these run-in’s lead to some of the more dramatic moments of the film as crew members are accidentally killed during Ben’s shoot outs, but they also give way to more darkly comical moments, as after a member is killed, we see Remy making a tearful statement to the camera, dedicating the film to them, claiming to be thinking of their girlfriend Marie-Paul, who’s carrying their child. Later on when another crew member is accidentally shot, Remy makes the exact same statement, complete with the mentioning of Marie-Paul, the only difference being the name of the recently departed. Of course there are lighter moments of humor in the film, such as Ben getting knocked out via one punch during a boxing match, and his old man roommate during his hospital stay who, according to Ben, does nothing but “shit and sing” all day long. The man’s ensuing argument with his nurse after he “makes caca” as well as him singing out loud “I shit for nights, I shit for days, I shit all over, I shit always” is comedy gold. It might work better if your actually watching it as apposed to just reading it but if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean. I’m laughing as I type this just thinking about it.
It’s been suggested that the filmmakers becoming more and more involved with Ben’s activates was a way of asking just how complicit we are when it comes to violence. Is simply viewing it too much? Or how about the crews filming of it in the first place? How far is too far? If that was truly the case, I can honestly say that the film never once comes across as “preachy”. According to the filmmakers during an interview done about a year after the film was released, it was never their intention to make any sort of statement whatsoever on violence, they simply wanted to make a film about making a film. Andre Bonzel, one of the films creators stated in the liner notes of the Criterion DVD that essentially the exact same film could have been made had even if Ben was a door to door salesman, except that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, and killers are typical characters in fiction, so take that as you will. (By the way, the term “Man bites dog” is a journalism term in case you didn’t know) Feel free to call me jaded and cynical all you like, but if you ask me, the idea presented in Man Bites Dog doesn't seem all that far fetched these days, especially when the internet comes into play. I often wonder if the film were to be released today what the overall response would be, both from critics and the general movie going population. Would it be as controversial and still be considered as shocking as it was back in 1992, or not so much when you consider what’s come after it in terms of content? My best guess would be probably a bit of both, with the former viewpoint most likely coming from media outlets in denial of some of the more sensational things they broadcast. Whether or not you “get it” and regardless of what your interpretation of the film is, one thing is for certain about Man Bites Dog, it’s sure to stir up a reaction and bound to leave a strong impression, one you won’t soon forget after watching.