“The scourge of society, as every man agrees - is violence” – Ben. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Since its 1992 release, the gritty Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous: It happened in your neighbourhood) has forcefully made its bones with cinephiles worldwide, and it’s easy to see why.
The film follows the movements of career killer Benoît (played by Benoît Poelvoorde) and a group of indie film-makers stalking him about as he matter-of-factly engages in brutal acts of murder and theft with almost total disregard The film’s opening scene takes place on a moving train, where we helplessly observe Ben strangle to death a young woman inside an otherwise deserted cubicle, this is followed by one of many scenes that depict him dumping a newly wrapped body into an abandoned quarry or lake, and from here it is safe to say the tone is set. As the picture progresses we bear witness to atrocious things, from the death of an innocent suburban family; mother, father and child, to the disquieting and hard to swallow gang rape of a woman in her own home as her husband is held at gun-point and forced to watch.
Hearing it described to them, an audience could almost be forgiven for thinking Man Bites Dog gratuitous or needlessly grotesque, but rest assured that this is in no way true. While this dive into cinéma vérité pulls no punches where on-screen violence is concerned, it is a horrific little endeavour as scathingly comic and wonderfully relevant as it is brutal.For every act of savagery you are made to sit through, there follows an ironic and captivating witticism or slap-stick comedic moment (such as Ben getting his comeuppance after dismissing a waiter trying to advise him to stay away from the dish of the day, mussels).
Not only a killer but a part-time philosopher, poet and magnetic public speaker, we share certain sympathies with the mischievous and often insightful young sociopath. As an audience it’s hard not to get drawn in to some of his more existential musings, or to find certain truths in them. But Man Bites Dog repeatedly throws this willing fascination with the macabre right back at us, never quite letting us forget what it isthat we’re gripped by. We could be strung along by Bens contemplative description of the many pitfalls of love, only to have that respect promptly tossed aside when he talks about his fear of touching a recently murdered black night porter for fear of catching “A.I.D.S, Remy, green monkeys.” Either way, we fall for Benoîtand his charm as, crucially, do the young directors shooting him, but are allowed through the medium of cinema to keep our distanceand to view him with a kind of detached interest symptomatic of news television itself. You could almost view this as some kind of salvation that only we are granted, something that sets us above and apart the film-makers and Benoît, however this film is as much a commentary on us as it is directors, and as in the plot itself, very few are ultimately spared.
The crew that follows Ben around; Remy, Andre and the interchanging sound men all use their own real names, just as Benoît Poelvoorde does, and this enhances the realist aspect of elements of Man Bites Dog. We get the impression that this could actually be happening in our neighbourhood, being documented by some fresh-faced young Auteur. The point where the narrative of the film-makers deviates though is when events start to incorporate them into being guilty parties as much as, if not more than even the leading man. As the script moves on they (and we)become gradually more a party to Benoîts barbarity than the unbiased spectators they are supposed to be. The process is a slow one, from turning on the lights to aid in him killing a postman early on, to holding the legs of a child as Ben suffocates him, to fully participating in the rape scene and the disposal of bodies much later.
As we track the gradual moral decline of the involved persons succumbing to Ben’s twisted world, what we understand is that this is a neat microcosmic look at how much of journalism itself works, that nobody is innocent. By commenting on a story, or even by watching one, you in essence become part of it yourself, and the more focus you give it, the more you change the outcome. The degree to which film or fly on the wall documentary makers assume impartiality is always going to be held as something rather contradictory, because naturally how can anyone be impartial when giving something a narrative? Furthermore, one thing that Man Bites Dog does superbly is bring into contrast the inherent immorality in trying to tell oneself that you are objective when bringing something so blatantly shocking to the public eye. As Ben drunkenly sings at one point – “Just say I disgust you! All because I have some faults, Cinema! Cinema! I’ll go because I am Cinema! From screen to screen, film to film, I gave you my life because I am Cinema!” After this point he leaves the bar, and we follow. We follow because he is entertaining, he is entertainment, and we are the entertained.
At other points the film makes light of its obsession with film documenting horrifying acts, the team and Ben encounter other film crews following other killers around in much the same fashion, which adds an element of the bizarre, in that this might be more commonplace an activity than we first believe it to be. Scenes like this are generally brief, but are probably all the more poignant because of it. One thing that the film does do is never linger too long on its message, or make it so obvious it drowns out the plot. Everything is as smoothly executed as you’d hope it would be, and this gives it a subtlety that compliments the violence Mise-en-scène. You can just as easily fall into scouting out all of the strange artistic vitriol as you can become immersed in the sheer handgun-happy fun.
Whatever you want to extract from Man Bites Dog, whether it represents a beautifully bleak and craftily scathing attack on the notion of accountability in modern media, or anamusing and unforgiving sit down on a Sunday afternoon, you won’t be disappointed. With even the side characters; Ben's family and girlfriend, being acted to perfection, and plenty of artsy little cinematic and editorial quirks to boot, It certainly does go out of its way to impress. There are plenty of violent movies in distribution in cinemas modern age, many are overtly more extreme in content, but few tread so carefully and heavily over such trodden ground simultaneously.
As artsy as it is accessible, Man Bites Dog is a creation definitely worth searching out. You may very well be disgusted, but not dissatisfied. To quote Poelvoorde himself; “Whatever the amount you need, Remy, Benoit will always, and I mean always deliver.”
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