Man Bites Dog

This is a review I wrote a few years ago. Thought I’d share it here.

When I watch a movie I often look for connections. I ask myself: “What other movies (or books) does this remind me of?” When I find these connections, I attempt to discern if they are intentional, or incidental. I also consider if the movie I’m watching was inspired by those that it shares something with, or if it goes the other way around. Man Bites Dog, It Happened in Your Neighborhood is replete with connections. More on those in a bit.

Man Bites Dog is a fake documentary. By now we’re mostly sick of the form, at least I’m mostly sick of the form. Fellini invented it. We’ve seen a lot of it. This is Spinal Tap,, The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Ruttles, are just a few of the many films to follow this style. Some are good, some are dreadful, all suffer on repeated viewings.

Man Bites Dog manages to keep it fresh, by not taking itself seriously. This, my friends, is satire. Remember that; it’ll come in handy later.

So, you ask: what’s the story? Well, the plot is simple. A small film crew with no money, follow serial killer and film his exploits while he murders, rapes, steals, sings, recites bad poetry, and drinks a lot. The Killer, Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde) serves as a sort of quasi producer to the documentary. He uses his ill gotten gains to buy film for Remy (Remy Belveaux), and Andre (Andre Bonzel). By this point you’ve noticed that the characters share the real names of the actors portraying them. These three are also the real film crew that shot the movie. So, three young film makers are portraying two young film makers and a vicious killer in their film about a documentary. Talk about postmodern structure.

As the documentary progresses, the crew is drawn more deeply into Benoit’s crimes. First they begin helping him dispose of bodies. Then they restrain a child so that he can more easily kill the kid. Next the three of them are gang raping a woman, and murdering her husband. You get the idea.

It all sounds pretty gruesome. And it is. But (and this is a big but) it’s funny too. We don’t laugh at the victim’s so much, but we do laugh at Benoit. He’s funny. He recites his own terrible poetry ad naseum, he stumbles, he kills post men, and wears their uniforms, he gets beaten up by a post man, he says moronic things, and thinks they are full of deep meaning. He drinks something he likes to call “a dead baby boy” (gin, tonic, and an olive tied to a sugar cube).

The film manages to segue directly from abhorrent violence to unexpected humor. Are we being tempted to laugh at serial killers? No. We’re being tempted to laugh at the media. At newscasters, camera men, and photographers who watch terrible events, and film them instead of helping the victims. We’re being tempted to laugh at people who maintain inflated views of themselves. And, we’re being forced to laugh by the tension, and the catharsis that follows. After Benoit unexpectedly shoots a man in the head during Benoit’s birthday party, the camera lingers for just an instance on the blood splattered faces of the other guests, then whip pans to find our hero seated at the table and enjoying a slice of cake. You can’t help laughing at this. It’s just all so impolite.

Aside: Writing the above I have realized that the humor in this film doesn’t really come across when described. I suppose you just have to see it to understand. I laughed at the things described above, but rereading that paragraph, I didn’t crack a smile. Oh well. But trust me on this. It is funny.

Satire is what we’re discussing here. Man Bites Dog is poking fun at a lot of things simultaneously. Among them: Serial Killer movies, Independent cinema, the media, serial killers, big egos, society, families (dysfunctional and other), and itself. This film could be viewed as self satire. That is, It is a film making fun of a film that makes fun of a film about a serial killer (confusing: I know. Let me try again: Man Bites Dog is making fun of itself by making fun of itself about what it’s making fun of. Still no good. One more try: Man Bites Dog is a satire only of itself (that’s a good start), its satire is aimed at itself, while it portrays a documentary, which could be viewed as satirical (perhaps of itself). Better, but still not perfect, and by the way, is this the longest parenthetical musing you’ve ever seen, or what?)

Enough about satire. Earlier I mentioned connections between this movie and others. What, pray tell, was I talking about?

Okay, we’ll try to do this quickly. Moments in this film will remind you of The Blair Witch Project. By that, I don’t refer only to the shaky hand held camera work, but also to the structure. A film about a fake film, starring the fake film makers. See. Plus, it’s all presented as a documentary. This film came before Blair Witch, just so you’ll know.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, like Man Bites Dog follows a serial killer (natch), and shows us his gruesome exploits coldly. Without judgment. Both films share something, although Henry’s attitude is much darker.

Next up, Brett Easton Ellis’ book American Psycho (the book, remember, not the film, I have no truck with the film). This movie will remind you of A.P. in a lot of places. In fact, Benoit seems like a low rent Patrick Bateman. Benoit, like Bateman, expounds at length on his favorite subjects. Bateman talks about music and business cards. Benoit about the mating habits of pigeons, and poetry. Both have inflated images of their own importance.

Natural Born Killers. This one’s obvious. Camera crew follows killer. Camera crew helps by committing acts of violence.

So, how does the film play? Beautifully. It works. It is entertaining, and shocking. It does go on a bit long, but with this structure it must be difficult to find the right pace. I can’t blame the film maker’s for that. The photography is nicely done in black and white. The acting is surprisingly good. I suppose the film makers have largely type cast themselves, which helps them to keep a sense of realism. I like this movie. I think you should like it also.

A few words about the criterion Collection DVD:

A few extras are worth mentioning. An interview with the film makers is well worth watching. It discusses the process of making the movie, and the furor that the film caused. The disc also includes a short student film made by these same fellows. A trailer is also included.

The big deal about this disc: it is the complete, unedited European cut of the film. The U.S. version (which I believe is all that is available on VHS) cuts several minutes of footage. The major cuts involve a gang rape and the murder of a child. These scenes are important within the context of the film. Without them, Benoit would seem more likable, less evil. Cutting these scenes would make this quite the insidious, subversive little film. The MPAA is stupid. I’ve said it before, and it can’t hurt to say it again: The MPAA, in their simple minded meddling, can take a patently adult film that caries a theme we can all understand; then mangle it, change it into something that glorifies violence, then make it available to underage viewers. The MPAA is controlled by morons.

Final word: I recommend Man Bites Dog. I suggest the Criterion DVD. Always seek out the director’s cut, as it were.

In totally unrelated news, I just found this mega-cool interview with Kathy Acker. It is well worth a read. Or two.

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