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Rediscover:

Man Bites Dog

Dir: Remy Belvaux

1992

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Film has always had a close relationship with violence; many of the early popular silent movies involved crude chase sequences or houses falling on hapless idiots and it didn’t take long for studios to start developing war epics and crime films as soon as narrative film became prevalent. One doesn’t need a background in criticism to understand that people are drawn to violence, to see that blood sells at least as well if not better than its brethren, sex. Yet the complaint that pop culture is overly violent remains common, never mind the murder and mayhem inherent in everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to folk songs. People are nothing if not in denial about their very nature. Unsurprisingly, films that work to point out this denial by taking cinematic violence to its logical extreme inevitably fail to achieve the fiscal success of works which simply gloss up their murder in black-and-white moral wish wash.

There’s a good reason why almost no one has heard of Remy Belvaux’s masterpiece Man Bites Dog while its mainstream clone, the Quentin Tarantino-penned and Oliver Stone-directed Natural Born Killers, remains on the shelves of frat boys and cinemaphiles alike. Man Bites Dog is a brutal film that refuses to gloss up its murder with a rock ‘n’ roll sheen, instead dealing in the grainy ambiguity of cinema vérité and allowing only the darkest of comedy to lighten its message. Like the works of Michael Haneke, Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog is essentially fighting fire with fire, easing people into its brutality slowly, piling on layers, jenga style until it’s too late for anyone to do anything but crash together.

The film accomplishes this slow entrapment primarily through the lens of the documentary film crew at the center of the film. The audience is expected to immediately identify with the crew who are initially presented as mere witnesses to the events of the film; the director Remy and his crew have seemingly stumbled across the killer Ben, who is all too happy to let them follow him along on his exploits. Ben comes off as charming and charismatic when he’s not discussing the best way to dispose of a body (throw them into a quarry, but make sure you’ve weighed them down properly first) and thus the audience is allowed to grow comfortable with the concept of watching a murderer at work.

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Of course, there are plenty of feel good comedies about murderers out there already, none very good (The Whole Nine Yards anyone?), but luckily this is not the model the film adheres to. Instead, both the film crew and the audience are pulled further and further into Ben’s world. As much as the audience undoubtedly would like to think that they are free from guilt, Belvaux is constantly reminding the viewer that they’re as much a part of the proceedings as the more and more involved film crew is. After all, if the audience wasn’t interested in Ben’s actions, would there be a crew to film it?

Unlike a Blair Witch Project or a reality television joke, the point of Man Bites Dog is not the extremity of the actions that occur within it, or making a seamless, glossed up presentation of reality. Its point is instead how we descend into chaos without realizing it. Although the crew starts as more or less detached observers, they soon become Ben’s assistants of sorts, with Ben even helping them finance the documentary. Ben begins to think of himself as a star, a glorified folk hero of a kind; when he murders the elderly, it’s merely to put them out of their misery and relax the economic strain they put on the government, a clearing of the forest in a way. Others are murdered because they are assuredly bad people. Through his charisma and confidence, it doesn’t take much for Ben to win over the crew, who take to carrying his things and helping him dispose of bodies without thinking much of it.

The most brilliant scene of the film is also the one that pushes the viewer and the crew both into the realm of willing contributors rather than detached observers; when Ben corners a rival murderer in an old house, he discovers that his rival has also gained a documentary crew. It doesn’t take much provoking for Ben to convince his crew to dispatch them and they comply; it’s a scene that despite its harshness always gets laughs, particularly when they start pillaging the corpses for any equipment they could use for their own film. Not long after, the true horrors start, but by then it’s too late for everyone.

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Man Bites Dog forces the viewer to think carefully about the inherent voyeurism within cinema and where it comes from. As much as we attempt to distance ourselves from killers and criminals and others on the outskirts of humanity, these are the characters that most often populate pop culture at large and film in particular. There aren’t many differences between the action heroes we root for and the forces of evil they oppose; society is naturally drawn to those who exist outside of its rules. Film offers a way for people to live, for at least a couple hours, as an outsider without the risks or danger. But Man Bites Dog takes away that innocence, testing how much the viewer will accept before they finally look away or leave. Even in the era of torture porn, the film pulls no punches, just as troubling and challenging as it was when it was released.

Man Bites Dog would famously influence a young(er) Quentin Tarantino, who would go on to name a production company after it and blatantly rip it off for his screenplay for Natural Born Killers. Natural Born Killers was a resounding success that removed the deeper implications of Man Bites Dog in favor of a hyper-kinetic editing job and the insertion of a latter day Bonnie and Clyde as the main characters. Which only really just goes to show that Man Bites Dog was too smart for its own good; one can only hope that one day it will cease to be relevant.

by Morgan Davis

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