DVD Review Of Man Bites Dog
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/3/08
The 1992 Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog (C'est Arrivé Près De Chez Vous or It Happened Close To Your House) is one of those films that is not bad nor good, and not really its own ‘thing.’ By that I mean that it is manifestly influenced by films that came before it, so it is nothing original, and it also displays techniques that other films have expanded upon. Yet, since most of these techniques and themes were not originally created within this film, it cannot be said to be ‘influential in its own right, more that it was a conduit between other, often better films.
The film, shot in black and white, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, purports to follow a serial killer, named Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde), as he kills and disposes of a myriad of bodies. The premise being that the camera crew shares complicity in the evil deeds, for recording them, and later even participating in them, by disposing of bodies and raping a woman. They even accept financing from Ben, out of his stolen booty. Naturally, the film loses all
claims to subtlety and effective satire, as well as hints of plausibility, here, as, when later, Benoit is captured by police (after failing to kill the latest in a string of mailmen, due to wearing a neck brace for an injury sustained in a boxing match), and no charges are brought against the crew, despite the cops having evidence of the filmed crimes. To see how this film fails, compare its rape scene with the one in A Clockwork Orange. Much is similar, with a helpless husband watching, but this film- despite its cinema verité style, evokes none of the revulsion and horror that the ‘fictive’ rape in the Stanley Kubrick film does. The reason? One word- screenplay. A Clockwork Orange has a great script, Man Bites Dog’s is a mess. Ben is not a real serial killer, even in the fictive world of his film. He lacks the subtlety, and, despite sciolistic braggadocio to the camera, he lacks the real hubris; despite speaking of ballast to sink corpses, condemning shoddy workmanship in buildings where he has dumped bodies, and looking to see if a black male victim of his has a bigger penis than white victim.
Aside from the irreality of the crew’s culpability in the crimes is that of friends and family members who seem to know of his ‘hobby.’ When Ben, late in the film, kills a man with an interest in his girlfriend, while at a dinner table, none of them react poorly to it. The killer kills in many fashions, and is undone, after escaping from jail, when a cohort of an Italian gangster/serial killer, he killed earlier in the film (who also had his antics being captured by a videotape crew Ben kills- not a film crew), seeks vengeance by killing Ben’s girlfriend and mother and shoving things up their vaginas.
In the end, Ben and the crew are gunned down, and the film rolls from the camera on the floor, until it ends. Manifestly, this was an inspiration for the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, just as the repeated gag of the film crew’s sound men being accidentally killed in Ben’s adventures, is a take off from the deaths by accident of the drummers in This Is Spinal Tap. And it is this ‘on the fence’ between other films status that makes Man Bites Dog a film that could have been much more, yet ultimately a genial failure. Yes, there is nudity and violence, but it is so over the top and cartoonish that the NC-17 rating it initially garnered was a joke that pointed up how much folly such ratings are. Later, the rating was overturned.
The 96 minute film was directed by Rémy Belvaux (who killed himself in 2006) and André Bonzel, and written by Belvaux, and its frat boy level humor is what ultimately kills the film, and makes it a lesser part of the genre that includes the Christopher Guest mockumentaries. The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, lacks an audio commentary, has a trailer, and a brief interview with the film’s three principals. There are also a couple of essays on the film, in the accompanying booklet- one by Bonzel. Given the subject matter, the film would have been more effective as a ‘straight’ mockumentary playing along a Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer Line. As is, the film is just a lower budgeted version of Oliver Stone’s hit and miss Natural Born Killers (which, itself, would have worked better had it played things straighter, like Kalifornia). Also, despite being under a hundred minutes, the film loses steam midway through. At an hour, the film would have been far more effective. As it is, the film becomes less of a critique of the media using violence and more of a pornographic pile-on that simply bores. After the tenth body or so there is no horror left, even if anyone had chills to start with. Also, Ben, despite changing his methods of death, is so predictable (each first of the month he kills another mailman) and sloppy (he leaves fingerprints everywhere, that he would never have gotten past three or four victims, tops, much less the dozens he’s slaughtered in this film (and the hundreds he likely killed before cameras were rolling). Had the film been a documentary on an unrelated subject and then we slowly got hints of Ben’s darker nature, it would have worked much better.
The filmmakers countered such criticism by claiming that the film is not about violence, but about the day to day life of anyone, and the main character just happened to be a killer. If that was so, though, then why is the film not about one of the mailmen Ben kills? It could have ended with the murder of the lead character, and been a comment on how easily people accept such violence and death. Thus, the filmmakers’ claims are bogus and disingenuous, and merely an attempt to minimize criticisms of technical and structural flaws with the film and screenplay. Technically, too, the film falls into triteness, such as shots of endless running and handheld camera techniques. Yet, the scenes, as such, do not demand the techniques, which are merely low budget razzle-dazzle to pad out the film’s length. Another problem the film makes, with its screenplay, is that the people killed can never affect the viewer in a visceral way. They are mere chattel for slaughter, not characters we care of. They are dead setups for Ben’s jokes, or less, things to merely get him from point A to point B to propel the putative plot of the film along. In short, there is no heft to the film. It is an occasionally funny film, but it asks no deeper queries of society nor the viewer, and certainly gives no answers. It is an exercise, period. But, one with no possible benefit, since the only answer and reason for the film they can muster is that old Hannah Arendt fallacy: the banality of evil, which is, let’s face it, triter than its claim. Benoit, despite the filmmakers’ intent, is nothing but a frat boy. He says nothing, does nothing, and there is no logical (even in the film’s skewed universe) reason that he should be of interest (unlike, perhaps, the Italian killer he kills, whose alleged Mafia ties end up doing in Ben and the crew).
At least in a film like American Psycho, one can gauge the silliness of the cartoon violence by the fact that none of it happened (even within the world of the film); it was all the violent fantasies of the lead character. The faux documentary style of this film does not let the filmmakers that out, and its lack essentially and eventually suffocates the film under its pretenses. Yet, true to its nature, the film never really lets loose in the other direction- in the style of Borat, that it is a comedy, first and foremost, not some deep psychological exploration. Thus, it does not engender enough chills, cogitations, nor guffaws, and remains a gray lumpenmenschen of a film, loaded with potential, but killed by its creators’ lack of skill and vision, rather than a rainbow of tears- be they of fear or laughter, the way Charlie Chaplin’s underrated Monsieur Verdoux did. It sits on a fence that is none too stylish, and even less effective at achieving its aim. Yet, it is the viewer that gets the splinters. Thanks, Benoit.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
Return to Bylines