AKA It Happened in Your Neighborhood
DIRECTED BY: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde
FEATURING: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux
PLOT: A documentary crew follows a serial killer around on his daily rounds, becoming more and more complicit in his crimes as he slowly charms them, and eventually finances completion of the film with the money he steals from his victims.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Man Bites Dog starts with an absurd premise, that a camera crew would follow a serial killer around nonjudgmentally documenting his crimes, and follows that bizarre idea to its illogical conclusion. Once the concept is established, however, the film goes about its business with a stark realism that only rarely strays into absurd territory. The movie’s black humor and ironic celebration of violence don’t set out to give us a weird feeling; they are an intellectual attempt to disturb us, morally.
COMMENTS: Even though Man Bites Dog ultimately misses its satirical target, there is a lot to admire in the craft behind this experimental expedition from three Belgian student filmmakers. Chief among them is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer (also named Benoît). Poelvoorde inhabits the role with a cocky, credible naturalism that suggests he is playing himself, if only he made his living by killing old ladies and postmen for a handful of francs at a time. As the subject of the documentary, the character of Benoît is fascinating, even when he’s not pumping bullets into a body. He has the soul of a bad poet; a would be philosopher, he takes time to notice and pontificate on the finer things in life. He’s capable of pausing in the middle of stalking a victim to notice some amorous doves, and discourse to the camera in hushed but knowledgeable tones about avian mating habits before resuming his hunt. He’s also casually racist and homophobic, kind to his parents and girlfriend, constantly aware of the camera’s location and visibly anxious to make sure that it is always pointed in his direction. He’s shamelessly unafraid to be captured on film, either killing or vomiting up a mix of wine and bad mussels, so long as he’s the center of attention. Without such a strong, guiltily charming characterization centering the film, the extreme violence and cruelty of Benoît’s rape and killing sprees would be unpardonable.
The film, ostensibly a black comedy, also has some very funny moments: Benoît is ambushed by a rival killer, only to find, after he dispatches him in a shootout, that his latest victim also had a camera crew following him around. The juxtaposition between Benoît’s amiable public personality, exemplified in a conversation with his grandpa about the time the old man sold a sucker a department store-bought pair of panties claiming they belonged to Brigitte Bardot, and scenes where he discourses in a drolly businesslike manner about the various ballast ratios needed to sink bodies of adults, children and midgets, also provides an undercurrent of fun. But unfortunately, although there are a few gems, most of the way the gags fail badly to find the correct balance between darkness and comedy, leaning much too far towards the former. Most people find the child snuffing and gang rape/murder scene particularly, and needlessly, vile, but the excessiveness of the running “joke” becomes apparent long before they appear. In an early scene Benoît kills an old woman with a heart condition by scaring her into a heart attack in order to save a bullet. It would be blackly comic, and make the film’s satirical point, for him to yell “boo” and have her drop dead; instead, she lies there and suffers, convulsing mildly, while Benoît calmly explains that she will expire soon. That sort of ironic detachment from human suffering pervades the film, and it’s that choice of tone, not the killings themselves, that makes the film disturbing.
In their interview included on the Criterion Collection edition, the three directors claim that the film is not about violence; it’s only about the process of film making, merely about how the source of funding will inevitably poison the purity of an artist’s vision. They say that the character of Benoit did not have to be a killer; he could just as easily have been a doctor or a salesman. That position is hard to credit—it’s certainly not what critics, the movie’s fanbase, or the Cannes jury that awarded Man Bites Dog a special prize got out of the movie—but if true, it’s a damning admission. If true, it means either that the graphic cruelty was put in the film in a cynical attempt to generate controversy, or that the filmmakers themselves were so jaded to depravity that they thought it hip and clever to make jokes out of it.
The common interpretation of the film, which its makers insist is off the mark, is that it’s about our cultural obsession with brutality as entertainment, about the way that the media is complicit in fostering this fascination, and even the suggestion that we, Man Bites Dog‘s audience, are implicated in this social sickness because on some level we enjoy what we are seeing. But, as I stated before, it’s not the film’s violence and sadism that’s disturbs us; it’s the (both real and fictional) film crew’s ironic distance from the brutality and sadism that makes us queasy. If that interpretation is correct, then the film’s satirical bullet strikes wide of its target. Man Bites Dog isn’t an arch, ironic condemnation of society’s love affair with violence; it’s only a condemnation of our love affair with arch, ironic depictions of violence.
Man Bites Dog compares unfavorably with A Clockwork Orange, another movie centered on “ultraviolence” that thrusts the viewer headfirst into sadism but forcibly his holds his eyes open, compelling him to confront the evil head on rather than inviting him to sidestep it via mordant humor. I even think this film compares unfavorably to Oliver Stone’s much maligned Natural Born Killers, which, for all its faults, was more sincere in its critique of the media’s glamorization of violence. But, even if Man Bites Dog fails to execute it’s target cleanly, it still gets points for craft. It also gets points for provocation—for raising the issue of our attitude towards violence in an intriguing way—even if we ultimately conclude that the attitude of the filmmakers is more a part of the problem than it is a way towards a solution.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…weirdly funny Belgian comedy… ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ dressed up in art house haute couture and staged as a drolly surrealistic comedy of murders.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
(This review was requested by reader “Filipe A.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)