(Man Bites Dog)
Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde
Production: Les Artistes Anonymes; black and white, 16mm; running time: 96 minutes.
Producers: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde; screenplay: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, Vincent Tavier; assistant director: Vincent Tavier; photography: André Bonzel; editors: Rémy Belvaux, Eric Dardill; sound : Alain Oppezzi, Vincent Tavier, Clotilde François, Franco Piscopo; music: Jean-Marc Chenut.
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde ( Ben Patard ); Rémy Belvaux ( Reporter ); André Bonzel ( Cameraman ); Jean-Marc Chenut ( Patrick ); Alain Oppezzi ( Franco ); Vincent Tavier ( Vincent ); Jacqueline Poelvoorde-Pappaert ( Ben's grandmother ); Nelly Pappaert ( Ben's grandfather ); Jenny Drye ( Jenny ); Malou Madou ( Malou ); Willy Vandenbroeck ( Boby ); Valérie Parent ( Valérie ).
Awards: International Critic's Prize, Cannes 1992.
Kerekes, David, and David Slater, Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff , 1993.
Variety (New York), 25 May 1992.
Strauss, F., Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1992.
Andrew, G., "Shoot to Kill" in Time Out (London), 30 December 1992.
Strick, Philip, Sight and Sound (London), January 1993.
Variety (New York), 8 February 1993. Mark Salisbury, "The Man Bites Dog Men," in Empire , February 1993.
McNeil, Shane, "Mocu(Docu)mentary" in Cinema Papers (Victoria), October 1993.
Urbán, M., in Filmkultura (Budapest), March 1994.
Beylot, P., " C'est arrivé pres de chez vous : L'imposture d'un faux cinema-verité," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), vol. 76, no. 3, 1995.
Roy, S., "Dans le cadre des rendez-vous," in Séquences (Haute-Ville), March/June 1997.
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Man Bites Dog was made by three film students from the INAS film school in Brussels over a period of two-and-a-half years for a mere $100,000, and yet, on its release it rapidly became the most successful Belgian film of all time, eclipsing Toto the Hero and beating even Alien 3 and Lethal Weapon 3 to the number one box office spot. Much of the financing for the film came from the Belgian province of Namur, and from the filmmakers' families and friends, many of whom appear in the film, though some were unaware of the controversial nature of its content.
Man Bites Dog is an extraordinary and daring amalgam of the serial killer film and the mock-documentary a la Spinal Tap. Its story of a film crew making a documentary about a serial killer and gradually becoming increasingly complicit in his crimes also has distinct links with the kind of "Reality TV" that now characterises so many non-fictional slots not only on American but also European (and especially Italian) television. As André Bonzel put it in an interview in Empire: "in New York there's a TV programme called Cops and it has a camera crew following cops and going to fights. Shoplifters are arrested in front of the camera and it's really a horror film. It's the reverse of our film—you're with the good guy rather than the bad guy—but now people want it to get stronger. The camera crew are wearing bulletproof jackets and going on more criminal things with more killing because the public wants more."
Critiques of media voyeurism and audience complicity are, of course, hardly rare in the cinema ( Ace in the Hole and Circle of Deceit spring to mind at once), but what is so remarkable about Man Bites Dog is the way in which it uses humour to make its point. Hard though it may be to believe, the film starts out as a kind of blackly absurd Monty Pythonesque comedy and only after a particularly horrendous murder and rape, in which the film crew participate, is the spectator brought up sharply and forced to realise how complicit he or she has become with what has been portrayed up to this point. As Bonzel himself pointed out in Killing for Culture , the whole intention was to "make the audience laugh, then have them think about what they've just laughed at. The whole point is to say to the viewer—look, how can you accept this?" This is a difficult and dangerous strategy, one fraught with aesthetic and ethical pitfalls, and the fact that it is so triumphantly successful here is due in no small measure to the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde (co-director of Man Bites Dog ) as the psychopathic Ben Patard, aptly described by Philip Strick in Sight and Sound as displaying "the ingratiating brutality of Richard III as played by Robert de Niro." Ben may be a monster, but he is certainly no cardboard cipher or stereotype, and we actually get to know his apparently decent, "normal," lower-middle-class, shop-owning background rather well.
Taking on board Robin Wood's celebrated thesis about horror film monsters representing the "return of the repressed," Shane McNeil, in a particularly interesting article on the film in Cinema Papers , has suggested that Ben, like other movie serial killers, is "the natural expression of the surplus sexual and political tension that bourgeois society strives so desperately to conceal. Ben, the serial killer, is simultaneously fils loyal and passionate son of the bourgeoisie, the logical product of a social system in crisis and the manifestation of excess in a society brimming with contradictory tensions. He is at once the quintessence of the European renaissance man and the embodiment of the Visigoth and Vandal. Little by little, parenthesised only by the shockingly explicit murders, the brilliantly structured (yet apparently random) dialogue reveals the multitudinous contradictions of his personality. Namely, how can an intellectual aesthete with a strong religious morality and a yearning for poetry, music, and ornithology be simultaneously a racist and homophobic cold-blooded assassin?"
At least one of the answers is that Ben is a fully paid-up member of what Guy Debord has called "the society of the spectacle" (as is one of Ben's postal carrier victims, who eagerly asks if he's on television before being murdered). That Ben appears to be acting as if starring in a movie based on his life is entirely apposite, since that is exactly what he is doing. Indeed, when the crew runs out of money, Ben subsidises the production. What we have here, then, is not simply a vicious satire on the conventional notion of documentary truth, nor merely an attack on the more lurid and sensational kinds of "reality TV," but something more profound and wide-ranging, as McNeil has suggested:
Man Bites Dog almost approaches a meta-analysis of the cinematic apparatus itself. The very act of filmmaking becomes a microcosmic metaphor of the entire cannibalistic enterprise, a form which feeds off and on itself. Hannibal Lecter now runs the projector. This comparison is made explicit in Man Bites Dog by the fact that the crew profits quite clearly and directly from Ben's criminal acts, both in terms of spectacle and capital. Film financing, and documentary filmmaking in particular, are directly linked here to the misfortunes of others. Both sides of the camera are working towards the same end: capital profit off other people's misfortunes— misfortunes the crew have, if not deliberately caused, as in the case of Ben, then certainly exacerbated by their complicity and false sense of objectivity. Literally acting as both cast and crew, Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde ruthlessly expose the mendacity of the media and its persistent tendency to obliterate, then manipulate, "truth" in order to make it conform respectively to the ideological and economic agendas of bias and sensationalism.