Man Bites Dog
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Incisive media satire or solipsistic auto-critique? Since its riotous debut at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, Man Bites Dog has provoked a storm of critical discourse while noisily ushering in a whole sub-genre of camera-as-accomplice thrillers -- from Natural Born Killers to The Blair Witch Project. Meta is the name of the game here: The story of a rag-tag film crew that follows a serial killer around a nameless Belgian town as he cheerfully offs one random victim after another, Man Bites Dog purports to be the actual footage of this year-long journey into homicidal psychosis. With its handheld-verite style and its crew pulling double duty as the cast, the film can be seen both as a faux-documentary of its own making and an ultra-violent reductio ad absurdum of bi-polarity. Even if it is only a work of fiction, Man Bites Dog blurs so many cinematic boundaries that questioning the filmmakers' motives becomes a necessary (but ultimately circular) investigation into why people need to make movies at all.

Recently issued on DVD by the Criterion Collection, Man Bites Dog was originally entitled C'est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous (It Happened Near Your House). Both titles evoke the filmmakers' maniacal yet strangely comical juxtaposition of bloodshed and domesticity. Indeed, the creepiest scenes show the serial killer Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde) visiting his mother and grandparents at the family-owned grocery store, swapping old stories and spending some quality time together. The family is played by Poelvoorde's own relatives who apparently knew nothing about the nature of the movie when they filmed their scenes. If eliding reality and fiction creates a disjointed verisimilitude, as it does in these scenes, the breaking of that elision can act like a punch in the stomach: Benoit promptly leaves his family reunions to break a few necks and to blow away a handful of rich old dames. These overtly fictional moments are sliced and diced into jagged paroxysms whose b/w verite style belies their overtly fictional premise. Style and content are pitted against each other but somehow manage to fit almost perfectly: the filmmakers (Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel) want to make a movie so badly that they are literally willing to commit murder.

As a comment on the degeneracy and greed of documentarians everywhere, Man Bites Dog can be both obvious and derivative. Its effort to preempt criticism by becoming an unflattering self-reflection feels too often like the stunt of film school wiseacres shamelessly appropriating and updating Nouvelle Vague clins-d'oeuil (soundless interludes and impromptu song-and-dance) for today's hyper-aware filmgoing generation. At their worst, Belvaux et al. seem incapable of making a movie that is about more than just itself. One of their early, sophomoric shorts (included on the DVD) is a trailer for a non-existent film: it's all meta and no substance. Man Bites Dog grounds itself by genuflecting to its fucked-up hero, a killer who looks and sounds real but isn't. Literalizing the god-worshipper dynamic between subject and filmmaker, the movie becomes an act of self-flagellation that fails to draw any blood because, in the end, there are no real bodies from which to draw it.

The movie fares better as a relentless study of its protagonist / leading-man. Part sadistic diva, part camera whore, Benoit effortlessly seduces with his hammy, tabloid energy. He recites poetry or plays the piano in between murders, and in one virtuoso scene, he rails against the offensive aesthetics of government sponsored, low-income housing. It's all a show, of course -- a performance within a performance -- and the filmmakers are bending over backwards to slurp it up. In the movie's most controversial scene, they film themselves raping a woman as her husband looks on. The sequence was cut from most theatrical releases, but is presented here in its entirety, including a grisly final shot of their disemboweled female victim. Trapped in an endless loop of recursive one-upmanship, Benoit is the victim of his own brand of cinematic existentialism. He ceaselessly dispatches others but can find no exit for himself.

Man Bites Dog wields a set of sharp tripod-points, but its satirical stabs can feel curiously superficial. Hardly a novel concept, filmmaking as original sin permeates this movie like nitrous oxide, and the filmmakers Remy Belvaux and Anrdre Bonzel are all too willing to succumb to the subsequent fits of hysterics. As they reach through the dark comedy to brush against the light of knowledge, they only end up touching themselves.

Man Bites Dog is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. The DVD contains a 1993 video interview with the filmmakers; a student short by the filmmakers; a stills gallery; and a theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price : $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.