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MAN BITES DOG

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Benoit Poelvoorde
Directors:  Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

“I'm not a lunatic, Remy.”

Film ***

Man Bites Dog has just about the biggest chutzpah of any film I've seen in a long time.  This 1992 faux documentary about a serial killer is aggressively shocking, over the top, and frequently funny.  Not to mention insightful and prophetic with its satire.

Ten years ago, it might have seemed a little too “out there”, the notion of television documentary filmmakers following around a serial killer and filming what he does, and sometimes even participating in it.  But today, we live in the world of obnoxious so-called “reality TV”, where prime time entertainment consists of ridiculously bad taste offerings like Cops, When Animals Attack or Roadkill Caught on Tape XIV.  It's a world where notorious serial killers get put on trading cards, where a celebrity murder trial became the media event of the decade, and where highly paid criminal lawyers became superstars.  Man Bites Dog was a little ahead of its time, but the time sure caught up fast.

A phrase used in the DVD booklet was “gorilla filmmaking”…not guerilla, which Man Bites Dog certainly is as well, but gorilla, as in a big, unpredictable wild animal going on a rampage inside his cage.  Co-directors Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde invest their low budget offering with that kind of pent-up energy.  It's constantly a powder keg waiting to blow…and it doesn't only blow once.

Poelvoorde also plays the lead, Ben.  He's a serial killer who dispatches of unsuspecting victims in brutal ways, always smiling for the camera, always ready with a bit of cheap philosophy or a horrid bit of extemporized poetry.  He's unlikable in every way, from his heartless actions to his bigotry inspired tirades…so what fascinates us about him?  Basically, his energy.

He's an already psychopathic killer who's fueled by the camera lights.  It's clear he likes showing off for the lens, and those making the film seem just fine with it…the bloodier his rampage, the better the cinema.  Members of the crew even find themselves ludicrously “helping” out from time to time, or even victimized when Ben's victims fight back.

In one unforgettable (and darkly funny segment), the sound guy bites it, and the next guy in the crew simply picks up the gear and finishes the segment.  After the shot is over, there is a moment of grieving.  What's funny, you ask?  It's repeated later, almost verbatim.  There is no real grief here…like most manic filmmakers are reputed to think, everything is expendable for the sake of the shot.

The film hits a bit of a lag when Ben gets hospitalized after a boxing accident…it's probably the longest stretch of film without something to surprise us.  But it comes out of its lull with a bang.

Moment after moment in the film are shocking, horrifying, and bleakly humorous.  Ben's exacting speech about ballast to body weight ratios in order to insure your corpses don't float up to the surface is such a moment, and it's compounded later in the film when his favorite canal dries up a little too much, leading to a frantic cover-up scene.

This film won't be for everybody…some critics have described the level and frequency of violence as particularly upsetting.  For me, it was all a little too over the top to take too seriously, but that's a judgment call each individual is going to have to make for himself.

There is a point to it all, of course, and the point is satire.  Man Bites Dog shows our thirst for blood soaked entertainment and fascination for the macabre taken to its ultimate conclusion.  Ironically, that conclusion seems much less far fetched now than it did ten years ago.  Somehow, I think Ben would have appreciated that.

Video ***

Though a low budget black and white film, Criterion offers a terrific anamorphic transfer for the disc.  The photography isn't so much an artistic as a monetary choice, I believe, but the effect is still striking…and probably necessary, considering that the true redness of blood might have really made the picture too hard to take.  The print is quite clean, and image and detail levels are strong throughout.  A couple of low lit shots exhibit some natural contrast grain, but as a result of the film stock; not the transfer.  Overall, an effective offering.

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is surprisingly dynamic, and you'll never quite know when the shots are coming.  Ben's penchant for firearms keep this a lively listen, while the rest of the film, which is mostly dialogue oriented, comes across clean and clear with no noticeable distractions.

Features ***

A good features package is included, starting with a 1993 8 minute interview with the filmmakers (and the cast members) about their striking production.  There is also an original trailer “IT HAPPENED IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD”, plus a stills gallery, and an amusing short film by the three co-directors, No. C4 for Daniel-Daniel, which is an amusing widescreen “coming attraction” secret agent trailer for a fake film.  Included in the booklet is a new essay by Andre Bonzel on the making of the film.

Summary:

Man Bites Dog is indeed “gorilla” filmmaking, and a stark, potent example of black comedy and biting satire coming from a low budget film.  It won't please everyone, but the adventurous will likely find it more than rewarding.