Sunday, April 22, 2012

Special to Tativille: "Looking back on Man Bites Dog, 20 years later," by Jeremi Szaniawski

Few films are more deserving of the appellation ‘cult film’ than Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde's Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous), which went on to become the sensation of the 1992 Cannes film festival, taking three minor prizes home. A brilliant ‘mockumentary’, this senior film school project, midway between the Belgian documentary show Strip-Tease and its fly on the wall aesthetics, and the excesses of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, makes abundant use of a very dark humor both in its over-the-top murder scenes and its memorable dialogues – which a whole generation of Belgian youth has come to know by heart.

Made on a shoestring budget and on 16mm black and white filmstock (additional scenes were subsequently shot for commercial release), and making deft use of the resources offered by subjective camerawork, Man Bites Dog transcends the paucity of its budget and highlights the complicity between audience and subject in fiction films and reality TV: a documentary film crew follows Ben, a charismatic and voluble serial killer. As the filmmakers come to know Ben’s normal side, his friends and family, they also become gradually involved in his horrible crimes. In an old factory, Ben kills several gang members. Forced to wear a neck brace following a boxing accident, he fails in an attempt to kill again, is identified and put to jail. The crew helps his escape, but it is too late—his family has been murdered by the mob. In the film’s conclusion, Ben, along with the entire crew, is shot in the old building where he had stashed his money.

The film invites us thus to partake in the everyday life of its infamous protagonist, in Poelvoorde’s life-defining performance as an endearing psychopath (a graduate of an art school, he did not originally destine himself to acting). In spite of his ugliness, he endows his character with the candid charm of a child, bringing a lot of appeal to the film. A larger than life figure, emotionally detached from his murders yet deeply connected to the viewer by virtue of his magnetism, Ben is a poet: in some ways he regards what he does not only as an eternal game, but also as an art, and revels in distilling darkly humorous words of wisdom (‘If you kill a whale, you get the environmentalists, Greenpeace and Jacques Cousteau on your back, but wipe out a school of sardines and you better believe you’ll get a canning subsidy!’) peppered with cinematic references, from Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin to Philippe Noiret. Ben is indiscriminate in his discrimination: midgets, homosexuals, black people, old people, children, pregnant women, postmen and even close friends—all are good to become his next potential victim, or the grist for his comedic mill (‘Once I immersed the bodies of two Arabs in the liquid concrete of a column under construction... Facing Mecca, of course.’). His odious character serves a buffoon function: he proffers racial or sexist slur and we enjoy it and laugh at it by means of distancing sanction. Carrying on this modus operandi, Poelvoorde became one of the audience’s favorite comedic characters in subsequent years.

The mix of the film’s deadpan tone and its outrageous contents (and the fact that many actors, including Poelvoorde’s family, had no clue as to what they were involved in) makes the whole absurdly funny. Ben makes a living off of his victims’ money, but also kills for the fun of it: he relishes the opportunity of an original, creative crime, such as killing an old woman with cardiovascular problems by yelling at her—a means to save a bullet. Ben feels no remorse whatsoever, except when a family of ‘innocent people,’ murdered, yields no money. “Such things should not happen,” he says in all seriousness.

Beyond the dialogues, the dark humor, and the characters’ apparent levity, one clearly sees the reflection on voyeurism, the manipulation of the image and the complacency of the crew in intervening into the reality they film. Ben's violence becomes more and more random and motiveless (he even shoots an acquaintance in front of his friends during a birthday meal), his criminal frenzy motivated and matched by the crew’s insatiable desire to film more, both mutually fueling each other’s insanity.

The film strikes in its questioning of political correctness and how far we are willing to laugh at it all. At first mere observers, the crew begins to get more and more involved in the murders. For most viewers, the breaking point in this gradual participation of the crew in the subject of their film happens in the ‘night watch’ scene on New Year’s Eve, where the inebriated crew, hitherto merely accomplices of Ben, barges into an apartment and rapes a woman while Ben holds the husband at gunpoint, before both people are brutally murdered. The following morning, the camera dispassionately records the bloody aftermath: the woman, who might have been pregnant, eviscerated on the table, her husband shot in the head, naked on the kitchen counter. This scene, which pushes voyeurism to its very limits (and was edited out in several national releases of the film due to censorship concerns), also marks the beginning of the end for Ben, his subsequent decline accompanied by less and less laughter, and more and more reflective pause in the audience. The greatness of the film lies in its ability to balance out dark and cynical comedy with a profound statement on the stakes of cinema and voyeurism. It also highlights the intimate connection between cinema and death: during filming, two crew members are shot, their deaths later referred to as ‘occupational hazards’ by the director. And when they are called upon to help Ben, in his failed attempt to kill a postman, the crew stands back, resuming its non-participative stance, this refusal to kill paradoxically leading to the undoing of their subject and themselves.

The film in many ways brilliantly anticipated and riffed on what would become some of the most morally questionable aspects of present-day reality TV. It also weighed heavily on its real life makers, with Poelvoorde’s proclivity toward excess and violent outbursts very similar to his character’s, and Belvaux’s dark genius leading to his self-destruction. In 2007, the director committed suicide in murky circumstances, having never truly recovered from his debut/masterpiece. Just a few days prior, Poelvoorde, at that time France’s best-paid actor, had refused to help him financially. The actor, who by then had destroyed his wife Coralie’s health by mental abuse and a score of infidelities, descended into an ever deeper spiral of drug, alcohol and dangerous erratic behavior (including smashing his car through a wall while drunk driving, and running away), immuring himself more and more in solitude. Reality had become as sordid as the fiction that led to fame—minus the fun.

Great works of art do sometimes come with their accursed share, and Man Bites Dog—one of the best films of the 1990s—is no exception.

Jeremi Szaniawski is a graduate student at Yale. This essay (in a slightly edited form) is part of the Directory of World Cinema: Belgium, forthcoming later his year from Intellect Press.

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