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Man Bites Dog (1992)
Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde

review by Michael Brooke

I still remember my first encounter with Man Bites Dog as though it were yesterday - I was booking films for Hampstead's venerable Everyman Cinema at the time, and in May 1992 my boss told me to have a look at what he described as "an interesting new Belgian film that I saw in Cannes." I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and no advance warning as to its content (I certainly hadn't seen the notorious poster!) and came away hugely impressed, if slightly concerned about the BBFC's reaction, though in the event, they passed it uncut, realising that the violence had a serious satirical point to it. By contrast, the film's US distributors removed the child killing and gang rape scenes, thus eliminating the overall message and making it arguably closer to the kind of film those who attacked it were complaining about.
   So what kind of film is it? The idea is brilliantly simple: it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the day-to-day life of Ben, a charming, urbane, witty Belgian serial killer, cross-cutting his relationship with his family (actually lead actor Benoit Poelvoorde's real-life family, who had no idea of the content of the rest of the film) with his various exploits, offering helpful advice as to how to dispose of corpses or kill elderly ladies without wasting a bullet.
   All this is played openly for laughs, with the youthful director and cameraman being content to observe Ben's activities (and his racist, xenophobic rants) without making any moral judgement - but when they start participating in his crimes themselves, at first through self-preservation but then through inclination, the film stops being funny and starts raising all manner of issues about the portrayal of violence and killing as entertainment in the most provocative, head-on way imaginable.
   The only thing that dates Man Bites Dog is the fact that it was shot on black-and-white 16mm (like John Carpenter's Dark Star a couple of decades earlier, it started life as a film-school project) - had it been colour DV, it would be bang up to the minute. In fact, watching it again after an eight-year gap underlines just how much the media has continued moving in the direction it predicted: although we haven't yet had a genuine serial killer docu-soap, it doesn't take a particularly giant leap of the imagination to visualise the headlines were Channel Five to attempt such a thing. Predating Chris Morris' media terrorism in the likes of The Day Today, Jam and especially Brass Eye (Morris must have seen it!), it packs just as powerful a punch today.
   Incidentally, full marks to whoever came up with the title - a significant improvement on the original C'est arrivé près de chez vous (literally 'It Happened Near You' - apparently an obscure in-joke to do with Belgian television), it beautifully encapsulates the theme of violence, black comedy and sensationalist media coverage in just three short words.
   Tartan (Region 0) DVD extras: scene selection, stills gallery, review, star and director filmographies, Pas de C4 Pour Daniel Daniel short.
previously published online, VideoVista #22
Man Bites Dog

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