Robin’s Underrated Gems: Man Bites Dog (1992)

A couple days ago, Gill posted a list of his “Top 5 ‘Found Document’ Films”, referring to a sub-genre of horror films which are built around the concept of “recovered” documentary footage. Each of these films are presented from the point-of-view of a documentary film crew who chronicle a series of horrifying events, and their hand-held, often shaky camerawork adds an element of authenticity and realism to the proceedings. Of course, The Blair Witch Project popularized this sub-genre and the film’s massive success has lead to many “found document” films being made during the past decade, most of which are chronicled on Gill’s list. However, one film which was absent from the list was a nasty, controversial, but undeniably hilarious low-budget effort from Belgium called Man Bites Dog. Before this film was released in 1992, the two major films which had been made in the form of a fake documentary were Ruggero Deodato’s hugely infamous Cannibal Holocaust (already covered in great detail in my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column), and This is Spinal Tap, which used the gimmick for comedic purposes and popularized the “mockumentary” sub-genre. Man Bites Dog is quite unique in that it’s a combination of both the “found document” and “mockumentary” sub-genres. Even though it covers some pretty horrifying material, technically, it’s not really a horror film and functions more as a satire on the concept of screen violence. Given the offensive nature of some of the material in the film, it’s pretty amazing how damn funny it is at times.

Man Bites Dog was shot in black-and-white by a small group of student filmmakers on a budget that would amount to roughly $35,000 in North American dollars. The three co-directors were Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde, who would all play characters in the film with the same first names. Benoit is a charismatic serial killer who is being followed around by a documentary film crew, of which Remy is the director and Andre (who’s also credited as the film’s cinematographer) is the cameraman. They also have a sound guy named Patrick (Jean-Marc Chenut), but much like the drummers in This is Spinal Tap, the film contains an hilarious running gag where the sound guys keep falling victims to unfortunate events and have to be replaced. Anyway, it only takes a few seconds for the film to establish its credentials with a brutal scene where Benoit strangles a woman on a train. The next scene shows Benoit dumping his victim in a lake and eloquently talking about the finer points of body disposal, explaining how much easier it is to get rid of his midget victims. After this, you have NO IDEA if the movie is going to horrify you or make you laugh hysterically. Anyway, the documentary crew tags along with Benoit and films him committing many murders while he philosophizes on the logistical planning one must make in order to be a successful serial killer. This scene involves Benoit perpetuating an elaborate scheme to murder and rob an old lady in her apartment, and while the scene is so wrong on so many levels, it’s undeniably hilarious!

Anyway, the irony of the whole situation is that Benoit is actually a pretty fun guy to be around when he’s not killing people. He’s a very intelligent, well-spoken individual with a great sense of humour and since he seems to come from a loving family and has good relationships with the people he genuinely cares about, there’s no explanation for why he’s such an evil psychopath. Since the filmmakers didn’t have too many other “found document” movies as a model when they made Man Bites Dog, it’s safe to assume they were probably inspired by the harrowing sequence in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer where the two serial killers videotape themselves murdering of a family. The brutal, documentary-like realism of that scene was intended to make audiences feel guilty and culpable for ever having enjoyed the act of screen violence, and Man Bites Dog often employs that same approach. Many of Benoit’s killings are presented with a touch of black humour and the film contains some hilarious examples of clever satire, such as when Benoit and his crew wind up crossing paths with ANOTHER serial killer who also has his own documentary film crew following him around! However, the film obviously does not want to fall into the trap of having its audience cheer for a serial killer, so it does not shy away from the harrowing aspects of his crimes and making the viewer feel guilty for having witnessed them. After starting out as detached observers, the film crew actively begins to participate in the crimes and the most disturbing moments include Remy holding down a young child while Benoit smothers him to death and the entire crew participating in the gang rape of a woman whom Benoit murders. This darkly humourous scene perfectly showcases how desensitized these characters have become to violence as Benoit kills a guy at his birthday party and nobody even bothers to react to it.

Because so few “found document” films had been made in 1992, Man Bites Dog garnered a lot of attention and acclaim and was able to secure a theatrical release in North America (under the NC-17 rating, of course). On the basis of his terrific performance, Benoit Poelvoorde was able to forge a successful acting career in Europe, although his two co-directors would not do much else. Sadly, Remy Belvaux wound up committing suicide in 2006 at the age of 39. It goes without saying that Man Bites Dog is an acquired taste and your enjoyment will depend entirely on how twisted your sense of humour is. Not many films have done a more successful job at horrifying their audience while making them laugh at the same time. However, even those who find Man Bites Dog offensive at least have to give it its due for being way ahead of its time. Not only were “found document” films rare at the time this was made, but reality TV was still in its infancy as well. The idea of a film crew following a serial killer around may not seem that absurd now, but it was a pretty daring and fresh concept back in 1992. Man Bites Dog is not as well-known as many other films in its sub-genre, but it’s definitely one of the most unique and ambitious ones and is essential viewing for those with the stomach to handle it. As an epilogue, I should also mention that Remy Belvaux did manage to garner an additional fifteen minutes of fame in 1998 when he participated in a “pie-in-the-face” attack on Bill Gates! It only seems appropriate that a guy with the balls to make a film like Man Bites Dog would also have the balls to do something like this.

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