Man Bites Dog (1991): Great, Controversial, Misunderstood Belgian Film

(Belgium: C’est arrive’ pres de chez nous)

The American Cinematheque has asked me to participate in a special event for the premiere of Man Bites Dog, the controversial film that won prestigious international awards in the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Having seen and admired the film at both the Toronto and Sundance, I have gladly accepted their invitation.

I was dismayed when Andre Bonzel, one of the co-producers and co-writers, told me at Sundance that the American distributor decided to cut out a crucial scene for fear of getting NC 17 rating. Fortunately, this scene is now restored and the movie is being shown exactly as intended by its creators. What seems to be making this brilliant movie, a mock documentary about a serial killer, debatable is a misunderstanding of its anti-violence message.

Belgium has produced a number of documentaries chronicling ordinary lives, but nothing like Man Bites Dog (C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous), a film in which practically every frame displays humor, irony—and blood.

A match made in heaven is struck between Ben, a serial killer (played by co-producer Benoit Poelvoorde), and a team of directors looking for a “suitable” subject for their new project. The ultimate cool professional, Ben is not shy about sharing his occupational secrets and hazards, and philosophical insights; nor is he reticent about showing the “meat” of his work.

“Man Bites Dog” follows Ben from body-dumping sessions to a choreographed strangulation, from scaring a grandmother to death in a suburban complex to a Mason-like rape and murder. At first, the crew members, perceiving themselves as concerned liberals, are shocked by Ben’s behavior and refuse to socialize with him. But gradually, they become accomplices to his heedless spree: they not only film everything; they also identify with their subject. Indeed, the team increasingly becomes entangled in Ben’s lifestyle, spending time with his girlfriend, family, etc.

Smart, “deviant,” and funny, “Man Bites Dog” is a satirical stab at serial killers, our new cultural icons; you begin to understand why there are so many works in popular culture about them. The evidence is pretty ample: consider the numerous made-for-TV movies; John McNaughton’s chilling feature Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Jonathan Demme’s l991 Oscar-winning film, The Silence of the Lambs; Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical, Assassins, the best-selling novel, American Psycho. Need I continue with my list?

The filmmakers contend that the graphic violence is really intended as a critique of our crime-saturated media and violence-dominated life. Man Bites Dog is also a send-up of the black-and-white cinema verite style, which is erroneously considered more objective, a satirization of TV’s pretentious “real-life” crime genre, and a debunking of journalists’ claim to professional detachment, objectivity, and ethics.

At the panel that followed the screening, a psychologist pointed out that in reality, serial killers, unlike Ben, are pathologically psychotic, lack charming personalities, and come from dysfunctional families. But is it a fair criticism of a film that purports to be a fake documentary Are movies (and art in general) expected to accurately represent demographics and statistical trends

The movie depicts Ben as both a man of action and a man of ideas. He knows philosophy, recites poetry, plays chamber music, has appreciation for the arts. But the cinematic tradition of presenting villains as suave, charming, attractive, and intelligent individuals is not new. It goes all the way back to the great Hitchcockian villains, Joseph Cotten in the masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt, Anthony Perkins in Psycho. And it can currently be seen in the thriller The Vanishing, whose hero (Jeff Bridges) is a brilliant scientist and a good father.

The denouement is as scary and frightening as can be imagined, indicating the high price that is paid by all concerned: not only the serial killer and his family, but the film crew as well. Unfortunately, some viewers are appalled by the subject matter and narrative strategy of Man Bites Dog, failing to see that its chief target is to expose the glorification and validation of violence through excessive media attention.