Movie Reviews: August 1993

Movie Reviews: Man Bites Dog


Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, Jurassic Park, bah! For violence in cinema that’s just little shit. The film that truly captures the mood of the nation is the recent gem Man Bites Dog, and it’s not even from America!

This is a film from Belgium that has taken the entire world by storm, gathering a slew of top honors at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and other important forums. And while the critical praise has been amazing, it has still managed to repulse the average filmgoer.

The subject is simple enough: a film crew takes on the ultimate documentary and attempts to chronicle the everyday life of a serial killer, Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde). Don’t go away! This is no rehashing of Henry, this is high farce in its most tightly-constructed form. The jist of the movie is that the film crew really doesn’t have an agenda for the endeavor. Hell, they really don’t have enough money to make much of a feature, but that’s okay because Ben is a playboy kind of guy who digs on the idea that his so-called profession is being documented. Killing is his business, and it’s a business that doesn’t necessarily conform to normal principles of economy.

Ben starts off by taking the crew on a few routine killings in order to set up “instructionals” for his profession. He revels in pushing his intellect before the camera, showing himself to be a problem solver as well as a seeker of truth. He also takes time to show his tender side, revealing that he goes through life just like everyone else does!

As the plot develops, the filmmakers become drawn into their subject, to the point where they even spend their free time with Ben. Not only do they find themselves holding Ben upright while he pukes over a plate of mussels, compliments of granny snuff, they also find themselves helping him off his victims. And, oddly enough, they lose a few crew members from the high-risk dangers of the project. They eventually reach that uncanny position of dependence on their subject, and the only choice is to see it through and become “cinema.”

So what is it that ties this all together and screams “masterpiece?” Well, for starters, Poelvoorde is an out-and-out natural for the big screen which so dominates our life. His whole sense of timing and gesture is literally unreal for a debut effort, and the part fits him like a glove. If you disregard everything else about the film, you still come away with a night’s entertainment on par with the best stand-up comedians.

But wait, there’s more. The genre of mock-documentary has been done before, but never has it been so real. The work is obviously silly, yet it contains this ultra-gritty, off-the-cuff look and fluidity, shot in black-and-white, that can literally make you question whether it’s real or not. Can they get away with snuff films in Belgium? I don’t know, but it’s a hell of a query to make afterwards. There are ail sorts of moral implications in watching and enjoying a film like this that it tends to make your head spin!

The actual directors of the film are three film school dropouts who pooled their talents to make what most people would not finance. As the story goes, they took three years to make it, shooting a little at a time, returning to the project whenever they could afford to. The result is not necessarily ultra-low budget, but it’s a scrapper that has been finely tuned. They apparently initiated the concept around a salesman and later switched to serial killer in order to push the limits. They were able to extract the talents of various friends and even older family members who were oblivious to the concept of the film! In general, they took an approach that is based on sheer determination and pulled off a glorious creative achievement.

After the film found a distributor there was talk about the American release being pared down, one extremely nasty scene in particular. Fortunately, the distributor has some balls and the film will show in its original form. This alone is a victory for artistic integrity, as the scene in question is sort of the climax point of the film and extremely important in context. Oh my God is it sick, too! But don’t worry, you’ll know when to close your eyes!

So go check out Man Bites Dog, a true original for this day and age. And take a date. Make it a first date with that special someone you’ve had your eye on, because if you can watch this together, you’ll be able to go to the ends of the earth.

Read more from the SLUG Archives:
Movies & Video: April 1993
Movie Reviews: Dragon Inn