A Killer Comedy
It is difficult to separate C'est arrivè prés de chez vous (Man Bites Dog as it is known in America) from the hype attached to it. Wildly popular in Europe, it is often perceived as gratuitously ultra-violent and exploitative here in the states. As a media saturated culture, we overemphasize its statement on media ethics. Yet Man Bites Dog is really a comedy, albeit unrelentingly dark and morbid. It is a low-budget calling card from three young Belgian film students. Man Bites Dog runs overlong and is uncertain, but has some truly funny moments, starkly morbid scenes, and lots of faux pompousness.
Facts of the Case
Andrè and Rèmy are poor, ambitious documentary filmmakers. Their subject is the gregarious, loquacious, remorseless killer Benoit. He is bigoted, somewhat charming, loyal to his girlfriend and family, and fancies himself an art snob. Whatever things Ben may be, quiet is not one of them.
Ben walks about town doing his "job" (killing innocent people for their money) with the trio of filmmakers in tow. They are objective at first, but soon become enmeshed in Ben's world. They go out dining, drinking, and carousing together. Before long, the film crew is actually aiding him in the killing.
Man Bites Dog starts out frivolous and finishes empty. Where does Ben's humanity begin and end? How about the film crew? Man Bites Dog would have viewers ask that question of themselves.
After hearing the incessant hype about how senselessly violent this film is, I expected much worse. Perhaps I have been spoiled by already knowing the nature of the film, and those who watch it fresh are caught off guard. Man Bites Dog has gruesome moments, but there are many scenes from mainstream Hollywood that are worse.
Perhaps it is the unflinchingly realistic tone that makes it seem so bad. However, by the time the credits roll, Man Bites Dog seems exactly what it is: a student film. Very well crafted, but unmistakably a student film. Though the film never officially breaks character, I got the distinct impression that the three were having fun with it behind our backs.
Let's start with the strengths of the film. First is the impressive work of three film students with a miniscule budget. There are different levels of independent filmmaking, and this is the rawest kind. No studio, no financing, no known actors…just a cameraman, boom man, front man, and some extras. In this context, Man Bites Dog is a surprisingly complete film. The video and audio are raw but discernable (black and white monaural). The camerawork is artistically gritty, capturing surprisingly haunting images. My favorite is when a quarry pond that Ben uses as a body dump is drained, to reveal years' worth of bodies.
The dialogue is dense, ironic. There is an axiom that "writers write best about what they know." These guys sat in a cafe and wrote dialogue that they found funny. They tried it out on each other until they found words that sounded natural. They filmed their own family and friends, used their own names for the characters, and capitalized on their personal dynamic to make things work.
The main strength of this film is the satiric comedy. Benoit is aggravating and immature, but quite funny. The abjectly violent situations in Man Bites Dog are often perfect foils for dramatic tension and pitch-black humor. For example, Ben's opening monologue deals with the proper weight-to-ballast ratios to sink bodies. Midgets apparently have dense bones, while the bones of the elderly are porous. It is horrible, but funny. I laughed many times during Man Bites Dog, but I dig that kind of stuff.
There is the fertile possibility of meaning within this gruesome mockumentary. The makers call it a film about filmmaking. Others find it a treatise on reality shows and urban documentaries, where the media is complicit in the atrocities displayed. Some call it a bunch of aimless, gratuitous rubbish by immature filmmakers. Whatever your take, there are definite themes that are open to heated debate.
Finally, the acting is superior if you take into consideration that these aren't professional actors. The way people respond to Ben is possibly the most fascinating thing about this movie, and it speaks well to the direction. His family is blithely unaware of his nature. His girlfriend is in a drug induced stupor much of the time, and seems to regard him with fear more than affection. Bartenders cringe when he walks in. No one wants to enter the radius of his malignant energy. Yet Ben is unaware of the low regard others have for him.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are several criticisms to be made of this movie. It starts off strong, has a promising direction, and shows some solid filmmaking. But the film starts to lag, and the formerly amusing Ben becomes grating and repetitive. I have no doubt that this was the intent of the filmmakers: that we ultimately find Ben shallow, and the crew who becomes enthralled with such scum is pitiful. Yet the fact remains: in the last part of the film, we follow the tiresome Ben around longer than we'd like to.
Speaking of the end, it is unfocused and unsatisfying. It is questionable whether the three really knew where to go with their original premise. This uncertainty manifests itself at other times. Occasionally there are abrupt, spastic cuts of random killings, ostensibly to show the passage of time but transparently meant to shock us and catch us off guard. These interludes are more annoying than shocking, and they cheapen the tension created when the lethal Ben meets random people on the street. We knew he was a killer from the first scene, no need to show random montages of violence.
There are some outright showstoppers in terms of realism. I cannot decide if they were intentional or not. One example is Benoit's opening monologue regarding sinking corpses. Apparently you need to weight the body down with four times its own weight. So for a 150 pound person, we're talking 750 pounds to lug around. Yet Ben is constantly doing just that, lugging bodies and throwing them over railings (where they float, and don't sink). I don't know about you, but I don't think I could throw a 750 pound bag of anything over a railing.
There are more, but I don't want to spoil the movie.
The problems aren't limited to the movie. This is the first of the vaunted Criterion Collection DVDs I have seen, and I wonder what all the fuss is about. I have no doubt that the transfer was painstakingly rendered, but the extras seem somewhat uninspired. A brief, unfocused interview with the filmmakers serves only to reinforce my suspicions that they pulled a fast one over on us. The stills gallery is more interesting than some of its contemporaries. The short film "No C4 for Daniel-Daniel" is good for a student project, but magnifies the flaws inherent in Man Bites Dog. The humor is too pointed, the satire too tongue-in-cheek, and the length double what it should be. As a package, these extras seem convenient for the DVD producers but are not enough. Is there footage of the trio winning the 1992 International Critics Prize at Cannes? Could Criterion provide evidence of the controversy surrounding the film?
At risk of understating the case, Man Bites Dog is not for everyone. It is a black and white, monaural student film in French with a lot of talking. Furthermore, it is unflinchingly violent. Yet it caused an international stir for a reason. The hunger and skill of the filmmakers is front and center. There are truly funny and tense moments, and the interactions are sophisticated. There are also frustratingly dull, misplaced, or exploitative moments that make you wonder if the filmmakers are abusing the tenets of narrative.
If you like black comedy and/or gangster films, Man Bites Dog is worth a look. If you want to see what the fuss is about, keep in mind that audiences ten years ago were completely unaware of the nature of the film. And if you can avoid the feeling that this is an elaborate, empty ruse, Man Bites Dog might become the perfect ballast for the lighter fare in your collection.
Andrè, Rèmy, and Benoit, you stand accused of being manipulative, lucky flimflam artists who pulled a fast one on the world and ran off with the loot. In this case there is a hung jury, because the adept sophistication of some scenes ring true, and you gave his honor several guilty laughs. The question of whether you are true artists or the fortunate benefactors of happenstance cannot be answered until you make a second film. His honor cannot help but notice that no such film exists. Court is adjourned indefinitely.
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Scales of Justice
• No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, A Student Short by the Filmmakers
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