Man Bites Dog (French: C’est arrivé près de chez vous, It Happened in Your Neighborhood) is a 1992 Belgian darkly comic crime-mockumentary written, produced and directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, who are also the film’s co-editor, cinematographer and lead actor respectively.
The film follows a crew of film-makers following a serial killer, recording his horrific crimes for a documentary they are producing. At first dispassionate observers, they find themselves caught up in the increasingly chaotic and nihilistic violence.
In modern day Belgium, a small amateur film crew are filming the exploits and philosophical musings of a very ordinary man, Ben (Poelvoorde, A Town Called Panic) who happens to be a serial killer. In between pointing out the intricacies of the local architecture and nature of the chattering classes, he dons a suit and kills people for both fun and profit, however small. Accompanying him on both his killing sprees and visits to his mother and grandparents, the film crew view their subject at arms length, shooting the minutiae of his family life with the same unedited, cold glare as his barbaric and heartless murders. We are distantly introduced to Ben’s girlfriend, who he reminisces about meeting when he was 17 or 18 and she was 10…
Ben explains, matter-of-factly, that he likes to begin his week by killing a postman (which we duly see in close-up) as, not only does it supply him with a cache of un-banked giros, it also alerts him to potentially rich elderly folk in the area – the elderly being his favourite prey due to their lack of resistance and habit of surrounding themselves with their accumulated wealth. Masquerading as a film crew documenting the lives of the elderly, they enter the residence of an old lady in a tower block apartment and before she can fully answer the first question, Ben bellows in her ear, causing her to have a heart attack. He advises both the crew and the watching audience that his keen eye spotted a bottle of tablets relating to heart complaints on the table as they entered, his observation skills allowing to him ‘save a bullet’ whilst still serving as a perfect opportunity to loot her house. He guides us through the rooms, highlighting the places he finds hidden cash, which indeed he does. He has already taught the crew the science of ballasting a corpse with the correct weight according to the gender and age of the victim, detailing the importance of considering the very old or very young (less weight due to their “porous bones”) and even the optimum amount for a midget.
The documentary crew become more complicit as time passes – from simply observing, they begin to aid in the killings in small ways (adjusting lighting, helping to bundle the corpses in rugs and throwing the evidence into canals and quarries) and when they run out of funds, Ben returns the favour by offering to pay for the remainder of the shoot, his ego and vanity now truly out of control. We realise Ben is not only hateful of society generally but has special contempt for immigrants and women. When goaded by the reporter, Remy (Belvaux) during what become regular, Bacchanalian meetings, as to why he only attacks the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society, he is greatly angered and suggests they head to the suburbs for a more challenging task.
Ben’s bravura performance is thrown by the slaying of a young man and woman in their house being interrupted by a small child who witnesses his parents being killed. After a chase in the nearby woods and the assistance of the crew, the child is returned to the house and suffocated. To follow, a ‘standard’ kill also goes awry, one victim fleeing from the car he was ambushed in and taking shelter in a factory. He is eventually shot dead but not before the crew’s sound recordist is also killed in the cross-fire. Incredibly, on the way out of the factory, they stumble upon another camera crew, a virtual matryoshka doll of a film covering a film covering a film. It goes without saying that the new crew and quickly and decisively dealt with.
Although visibly shaken, Remy is certain his dead colleague would have accepted his fate and that they all realise their jobs come with ‘occupational hazards’. Further footage of his family’s somewhat humdrum problems are punctuated by a house invasion by Ben and the crew, a young couple rudely interrupted in flagrante. Any comedic elements to the film are resolutely trampled upon as the film-makers and subject gang-rape the girl, Ben still offering his thoughts and tips whilst he takes his turn. The pair are later murdered and gutted. Ben’s violence becomes more and more random until he kills an acquaintance in front of his girlfriend and friends during a birthday dinner. Spattered with blood, they act as though nothing horrible has happened, continuing to offer Ben presents. The film crew disposes of the body for Ben. After a victim flees before he can be killed, Ben is arrested, but later escapes. At this point someone starts taking revenge on him and his family. Ben discovers that his parents have been killed, along with his girlfriend: a flautist, she has been murdered in a particularly humiliating manner, with her flute inserted into her anus. This prompts Ben to decide that he must leave. He meets the camera crew to say farewell and in typical manner begins to poetically conclude the documentary with his now well-rehearshed panache but it seems he has made one too many enemies along the way…
Depending on your viewpoint, it was either incredibly fortuitous or horrendous bad luck that Man Bites Dog appeared within months of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video, all examples of film-makers pushing the boundaries of cinema and being unafraid at the depiction of violence and showing the perpetrators of crime as being essentially unremarkable, often likeable people. Shot in black and white and using only diegetic sound, Man Bites Dog still made a huge impression upon release in 1992, the graphic and unflinching violence made all the more savage by the brevity and simplicity of the kills – although there are few lingering shots, there is no flinching from the murder of neither elderly ladies nor small children. The casting of the film-makers themselves in the main parts – with Poelvoorde as the assassin, and each of his co-writers playing the crew members – helped make this low-budget black-and-white picture affordable, the almost unthinkably low budget of around £15,000 being raised amongst their friends, families and French-speaking Belgian Film Trust. The somewhat blurred lines near the beginning of the film as to whether what we’re seeing is real, film or documentary are mirrored by the crew themselves who forget their intended role as both the charisma of Ben and the thrill of the attacks consume them.
Unusually, the murders are mostly gun kills, an unusual tack for a serial killer to take (The Town That Dreaded Sundown is another rare example) but the swift dispatch is entirely in keeping with Ben’s view of society and the many expendable groups who blight his life – a black security guard is chastised for ‘camouflaging’ himself in the dark due to his colour. Though known as being darkly comic, it’s not a film you should expect to be laughing at, the absurdity of the premise being a little too close to real life, especially with the subsequent rise of reality television and ever-unblinking news reports of any manner of horrors. It might be reading too much into the film to query how on Earth the faux documentary-makers ever intended to cut the film for actual public consumption.
It was a box-office success in its home country, where it out-grossed Batman Returns and was only just held off the number one spot by Lethal Weapon 3.
Man Bites Dog was not without its critics, most of them armed with scissors – the film was heavily edited in America and Australia, the film booker for the Tokyo Film Festival fired for simply trying to screen it. It was banned outright in Sweden whilst in France, the poster, originally depicting a baby’s dummy flying out of the assassin’s gun, being replaced by a set of dentures. Perversely, the film was released uncut in the UK.
The magnificent Poelvoorde went on to have huge success in his native Belgium in rather more salubrious fare and also a lead role in the Oscar-nominated, Coco Before Chanel. Rémy Belvaux never shrank from his enfant terrible tag and achieved further notoriety in 1998 for throwing a custard pie at Bill Gates whilst he was visiting Brussels. Tragically, Belvaux committed suicide in 2006 at the age of only 39 after a long struggle with depression.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA