Rémy and André are filmmakers, documenting the murders and other crimes committed by a man named Benoît, a nihilistic and highly opinionated career criminal. Their involvement with this dangerous psychopath gradually shifts from complicit observation to full-on partnership, all in the name of crafting a film. And along with that come a series of greater and greater risks, both to their lives and the lives of those around them…
I’ll level with you: I didn’t think Man Bites Dog was a bad film, but there’s a lot of hype surrounding it and I’m not entirely clear what the hype is about.
Certainly the film represents a major creative risk for its trio of writer/director/stars, Benoît Poelvoorde, André Bonzel and the late Rémy Belvaux. (Take a wild guess as to what characters they play.) It’s filmed in grainy black and white with a highly naturalistic, guerrilla style (Poelvoorde’s parents play his character’s parents in the film, and apparently weren’t aware that Poelvoorde played a serial killer until the latest stages of production) that helped blaze the path for The Blair Witch Project and the modern “mockumentary”/found-footage format that will be with us until mainstream Hollywood finds another bandwagon to jump onto.
The content is pretty strong stuff: not just for its frank depiction of violence (which, with a couple of exceptions, isn’t really all that graphic), but for its story points as well. About halfway through the film, Benoît and the filmmakers break into an apartment and take turn raping the woman who lives there; by the time the last man has had his turn, her screams of fear and pain have turned to moans of ecstasy. I have to wonder if Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde were actively trying to court controversy here.
And there’s nothing wrong with that; cinematic sick-jokes such as Frankenhooker and Thankskilling are vital to the health of the genre. But apparently this is supposed to be a huge shocker as well, and I just don’t see it. One IMDB review describes it “as disturbing as Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer,” and…as respectfully as possible, I have to disagree with that. Henry wasn’t disturbing because of what Henry did–any reasonably active imagination can come up with scenarios ten times as deprived as anything seen in that film–but because of who Henry was. Henry shocks because he’s a character you can believe actually exists somewhere out there, maybe on your block, and he does all that horrible stuff.
Benoît does horrible stuff, too, but it’s not shocking because he’s essentially a cartoon character. He’s a very obvious caricature of a cultured middle-class (in European terms) psychopath. I honestly don’t think that he’s meant to be a credible character, because despite all of its naturalistic devices (according to Google Translate, the film’s French title, C’est arrivé près de chez vous, translates to “It happened near you”), there’s a streak of black humor and satire to the proceedings, and it’s not of a particularly realistic style. More than once I found myself thinking of This Is Spinal Tap–particularly during a series of running gags in which Rémy and André’s relationship to sound recordists turns out to be very similar to Messrs. Tufnel, Smalls and St. Hubbins’s relationships to drummers.
I can’t really tell how strong that streak is supposed to be–maybe it’s deliberately downplayed, maybe it’s a take-it-or-leave-it thing. Maybe it’s something I need to be Belgian to understand. But what I can say is that I didn’t find myself laughing very often, even when events clearly weren’t meant to be taken entirely seriously (as with the sequence involving a rival pack of documentarians). While I admire the satire–which seems, at least to me, to be accusing the media of complicity with the atrocities and tragedies it covers–for even existing in 1992, I didn’t find it particularly effective.
So what that left me with was an hour and a half of stylized violence. Which I appreciated on an entirely aesthetic level, but apart from the occasional chuckle, it’s not a film that I engaged with much and I have a suspicion I’ll have a hard time even remembering in the future. The only scene that’s going to stick with me much is the rape sequence, and even then that’s more about what it did than how it did it. You can draw a clear path from Man Bites Dog to the work of Quentin Tarantino and Fargo (and, less positively, dreck like The Boondock Saints), but standing on its own, while it’s just about entertaining enough I honestly didn’t feel it did anything that its successors didn’t do much, much better.
Or maybe I just didn’t get it.
My rating: 5 of 10.
96 minutes; in French, with English subtitles. Directed by Rémy Balvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoode. Starring Benoît Poelvoode, Rémy Balvaux, Jenny Drye, Jacqueline Poelvoode Pappaert, Malou Madou, André Bonzel.