Man Bite Dog February 21, 2017
Meet him for the first time and you wouldn’t expect him to be who he is. Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde) is charming. Funny. A great storyteller. Watch him from the corner of your eye and he’s a force of nature, an animated cult of personality you’d like to get to know. He’s dedicated to his family, his friends. He’s a caring, passionate partner. And he’s brilliant, an observer curious about in the inner workings of the world and how they relate to one another.
Ben is also a serial killer. He's deliberate in his every action and so holistically ordinary in his public personality that he serves as the classic example of a criminal who, to neighbors, appears to be perfectly normal until the news spreads that he is, in fact, not so normal.
He exemplifies the very meaning of the term “man bites dog,” an aphorism used in the journalism industry to describe the phenomenon that finds more unusual, unexpected news stories being more widely reported than the mundanities of the everyday. Because he doesn’t meld with the archetypal idea of what a serial murderer is. He isn’t chronically foaming at the mouth and doesn’t wear an insatiably murderous lust in his eyes. He’s put together, a psychopath we’d never suspect to be unless we somehow dive into deep conversation and come to the epiphany that something’s unmistakably off.
In any film would Ben make for a piquant creation, but in 1992’s Man Bites Dog, written, produced, and directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Poelvoorde (who also star), is he even more provocative. The movie’s photographed in the style of a mockumentary, with Ben acting as a subject uncomfortably touchable. He doesn’t feel like the fictional creation that he is – he lives and he breathes, burrowing under our skin with discomfiting ease.
Man Bites Dog irrevocably doesn’t blur out morality; it smudges it off the frame, casting aside basic goods and evils and portraying depravity with the same unceremoniousness of the taking of a shower. Here, death is fixed, blunt. Fatalism is resolute.
Preliminarily does the movie emerge as a media satire that takes jabs at the public’s unremitting obsession with violence. The documentary crew following Ben’s every move is there, clearly, because there’s an audience who’d undoubtedly be intrigued to take a peek inside the bloodsoaked life of a killer.
But as Man Bites Dog materializes is it obvious that the film’s makers aren’t specifically interested in such broad commentary. They’re looking to personally attack us, to force us to look at ourselves and inspire us to consider just how much better we are than the fictional filmmakers who chase their person of interest around like a gleeful litter of puppies. We can judge them for their willingness to excuse (and, eventually, partake in) cold-blooded murder all we want. But we’re also inclined to watch such acts. Does our fundamental fixation make us any better?
As genres within the entertainment industry wouldn’t exist if not for our attraction to violence, the answer’s a flimsy yes, as we, of course, are not active participants in a bystander’s senseless death. But Man Bites Dog tantalizes fruitfully. It shocks, but it does so in a way that ensures reflection. We’re unceasingly aghast. Yet that proves Belvaux, Bonzel, and Poelvoorde’s ultimate point: We’re willing to compromise the apparent rigidities of our moral compasses for the sake of entertainment.
We feel dirty as we view Man Bites Dog. But we’re too magnetized by its eagerness to provoke to look away. What its makers have done here is enormously difficult. They’ve created a protagonist who’s likable, though never sympathetic, until he descends into savagery. They both celebrate and condemn the nature of documentary filmmaking, proving that its generally intermittently educational guise can simultaneously make for enlightenment and subjectivity. Consumers might leave the theater better informed, but directors are rarely able to live through a scenario and not come out unmoved by their experiences. They’re unafraid to motivate their viewers to look at themselves rather than merely lazily escape into the diversions put in front of them.
Whether watching Man Bites Dog is a must, though, is arguable. While its cultural derisions are whip-smart, it is not an experience to be pursued by the faint of heart. It’s the sort of movie you want to take two steps away from rather than jump wholeheartedly toward. It’s nasty, monstrous, and perturbingly naturalistic. But it also strips away the romanticized sensationalism that oft marinates onscreen violence, and that’s a particularly inspiriting quality. Sitting through Man Bites Dog’s accomplishments guarantees rampant uneasiness. And uneasiness, as it goes, is never an easy thing to undergo. Watch at your own risk. B+