MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Man Bites Dog’: Seductive Nature of Violence : The ragtag production allows us to cozy up to its charming killer, then, realizing his heinousness, gag on our self-satisfied black laughter.
“Man Bites Dog” defines audacity. An assured, seductive chamber of horrors, it marries nightmare with humor and then abruptly takes the laughter away. Intentionally disturbing, it is close to the last word about the nature of violence on film, a troubling, often funny vision of what the movies have done to our souls.
The deserving winner of the International Critics Award at Cannes (and playing for two weeks at the Nuart in West Los Angeles), “Man Bites Dog” was made on the cheap by a trio of young cash-poor Belgian filmmakers: Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde. The three decided to construct a phony cinema verite documentary because a ragtag, catch-as-catch-can film was the only thing they had the resources to create.
Economic restraints also forced the trio to cast themselves in “Man Bites Dog.” And while Belvaux and Bonzel parallel their real jobs (and use their real names) by playing the fake film’s director and cinematographer, Poelvoorde takes on the role of Ben, the documentary’s subject, and his transformation is the bravura key to “Man Bites Dog’s” success.
For Ben is several things, all of them disturbing in their own way. He is a nerveless thief and compulsive, brutal killer, a man who takes pride in his professionalism and who is ever so happy to share the tricks of his trade, like why it’s harder to dispose of a dead midget than you might think, with the eager film crew.
It is this cheerful bonhomie linked to absolute savagery that is Ben’s defining trait, and Poelvoorde plays him with beautiful panache and self-assurance. Homophobic, racist, sexist, Ben can also be irresistible, Maurice Chevalier as the Texas Chain Saw maniac. With a raucous laugh and a rubbery comic’s face, Ben is invariably the picture of amiability, a master of inclusive chitchat who could charm his way into Arsenio Hall’s chair.
Charm his way into the crew’s good feelings is what he does, and, in a shrewd bit of parallel development, into the audience’s as well. We hear Ben quote poetry, stop in the middle of a gun battle to point out pigeons in love, even discourse as eloquently as Prince Charles on the horrors of modern urban architecture. Never mind that we also see him very graphically murdering a wide variety of harmless innocents (the cause of the film’s NC-17 rating). As his close friend concert flutist Valerie nonchalantly puts it, “I don’t pry into his work. Everyone’s got to eat.”
Initially a bit standoffish, the documentary crew becomes not only friendly but increasingly involved in Ben’s activities. He gives them money to help with expenses (“I know you’re filming on a shoestring”), he treats them to dinner (murder whets his appetite) and when he refuses to touch the corpse of a just murdered night watchman because he considers all Africans possible AIDS carriers, the crew obligingly agrees to drag the fellow off for him.
This kind of relatively painless palling around with Ben, however, is merely “Man Bites Dog’s” opening thrust. Without a warning, in a single awful scene that was at one point misguidedly clipped out of the American version but has since been restored, the nature of everything changes. Suddenly, we realize just who it is we have allowed ourselves to feel cozy with, and our self-satisfied black laughter gags bitterly in our throats.
This kind of sophisticated moral statement about how and why films can numb us to the reality of violence would have been impressive enough from any filmmakers, but from a crew so neophyte that Poelvoorde used his own mother and grandparents to play Ben’s family (without telling them, however, what Ben was really like), it is quite remarkable.
On second thought, however, (and this is a picture that encourages second thoughts), maybe it is just the filmmakers’ youth, inexperience and distance from Hollywood that encouraged them to think they could pull off an elaborate stunt that has something to say as well as a clever way to say it. When no one is jamming the rules down your throat, anything goes and anything can happen. Just ask Ben.
‘Man Bites Dog’ Benoit Poelvoorde: Ben Remy Belvaux: Remy Andre Bonzel: Andre A Les Artistes Anonymes production, released by Roxie Releasing. Director Remy Belvaux. Producers Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde. Screenplay Bonzel, Poelvoorde, Belvaux, Vincent Tavier. Cinematographer Bonzel. Music Jean-Marc Chenut, Laurence Dufrene. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.