Wednesday 26 March 2008

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
Star: Benoît Poelvoorde

Here's a completely unique film that I haven't seen in far too long. It arrived at the same time as other films exploring the modern culture of violence like Bad Lieutenant and Natural Born Killers. However those were American films made by directors and starring actors we've actually heard of, so were promptly either banned outright in England or handed a long delay before eventual release. Man Bites Dog is a Belgian film made by a bunch of film students, shot in black and white and in French, so naturally it was released uncut with an 18 rating and nobody noticed except some very obscure film fans like me.

It begins as it means to go on, with a brutal garrotting on a train. The killer is Benoît Poelvoorde, one of the writers/directors of the film, who like most of the characters in the film has the same name as the actor. He's the subject of a documentary, being made by the directors of our film, again using their real names. He's a cheerful and sociable chap, who just happens to be a serial killer. He happily explains the details of his business to the camera, while he's going about it. He explains his formulae for weighing down different types of bodies in preparation for dumping them. He explains how and why he picks his targets and his techniques and tools of the trade. In between murders, he waxes lyrical about life and love and everything else from race to architecture to poetry. He doesn't tend to hide much, for a serial killer, visiting the crew back to meet his family, to watch him accompany a musician friend on piano or even to the home of a prostitute he visits.
The point of course is to explore, in the structure of a dark comedy, modern culture's obsession with an glorification of violence and killing along with an important question: how far can journalists go in reporting something without becoming part of what they're reporting on? In this case not very far. For the first killing we see, the camera crew merely shoot the action. For the second, they help to light the scene. Soon they're financing their film from money stolen from the homes of elderly victims. It doesn't take too long before the production crew's sound man gets to be accidentally added to the death toll.

It all highlights the doublethink very well indeed. Rémy eulogises Patrick the sound man, obviously broken up by his death and deeply concerned for Patrick's pregnant girlfriend. He explains how it's hard to talk about the death of his friend, seemingly completely oblivious of the fact that he's been making a film in which his subject has been happily killing people. Eventually of course the crew assist in the killing itself, thus becoming literally part of the crimes. It's a stunning film, not just during the film and during the silent end credits where you get to reflect on what has gone before, but later as time goes by and it starts to come to mind while watching other TV shows, documentaries or news footage. And other, more obviously fictional films too...

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