Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous) [DVD]
Director : s Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, & Benoît Poelvoorde
Screenplay : Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, & Vincent Tavier
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1992
Stars : Benoît Poelvoorde (Ben), Rémy Belvaux (Remy), André Bonzel (Andre), Jean-Marc Chenut (Patrick), Jacqueline Poelvoorde-Pappaert (Ben's Mother), Nelly Pappaert (Ben's Grandmother), Hector Pappaert (Ben's Grandfather), Jenny Drye (Jenny)
Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous) was destined for controversy. Everything about it elicits conflicting responses, so that even those who find it to be brilliantly subversive tend to have doubts about its methods. Its true attitude about its subject is blanketed in mystery and contrary statements, some of which suggest that it is a serious and significant cinematic exploration of both filmmaking and the process by which spectators are implicated in on-screen violence simply by viewing it, others of which lead one to think that the film is just a big, sick joke.
Taking the form of a pseudo-cinema verité documentary—complete with grainy black-and-white photography, an unsteady camera, and a compelling sense of the uncontrolled—Man Bites Dog follows the day-to-day activities of Ben (played by cowriter-codirector Benoît Poelvoorde), a pretentious and boisterous young man who is also a vicious mass murderer. The film isn't a minute old before he is attacking and strangling a woman on a train, and the manner in which the scene is filmed is an immediate indication of the film's aesthetic as a whole. In documentary fashion, the camera never cuts away from Ben's strangling the woman, instead moving in closer so we can observe her eyes bulging and her body quivering. Man Bites Dog is obsessed with the grisly (and often clumsy) intricacies of violent death—the kind of stuff most other movies cut away from, it focuses in on.
Ben is the star of his own documentary, which is being put together by a director named Rémy (played by cowriter-cowriter Rémy Belvaux), a cameraman named André (played by cowriter-codirector André Bonzel), and a soundman, who is played by three different actors because, in a running joke, the soundman keeps getting killed during production. We never know how these filmmakers found Ben or why they want to make a documentary about him. It is simply a given.
However, because he is always in the center of their camera lens, we find out a great deal about Ben: We see his family (played by Poelvoorde's actual family members), who are blissfully unaware that their son is a sociopathic killer, we see his girlfriend and various friends, and we listen to him as he expounds endlessly on various subjects, from philosophy, to poetry, to architecture, to personal hygiene. Ben is blunt, but there is something about him that is irresistibly charming. Actually, charming is not the best word because his appeal lies more in the forcefulness of his personality—he has absolutely nothing to hide. He's an open book, spilling all his thoughts just as easily as he spills his victims' guts. There is appeal in what can only be described as his ruthless integrity. He's completely amoral, rude, and terribly pretentious, but he is all those things with such gusto and aplomb that it's hard not to be drawn into his energy, destructive though it is. In many ways, this is what makes the film so scary.
Yet, at all times, we are constantly being reminded that Ben is a fiction. For all its aesthetic replications of the cinema verité style, Man Bites Dog wears its fictional status proudly on its sleeve because we can never for a moment believe in Ben as a real person. He's too much of everything, and his methods of murder are so self-consciously camera-driven that in real life he would have been caught a long time ago. More than a character, he's an id, an uncontainable force whose murderous tendencies are an almost natural offshoot of his violently in-your-face personality.
In a way, Ben could only be filmed in the cinema verité style because the mantra of this style of documentary filmmaking (developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebaker) is about capturing the reality of uncontrolled situations, which is what defines Ben's existence. He is a man completely out of control, and that is infectious. The documentary filmmakers find it impossible to just to be observers; instead, they constantly find themselves being drawn into Ben's work.
As the film progresses, so does the filmmakers' involvement in his violence, until they have moved from helping him dispose of bodies to actually taking part in rape and murder. This happens at a key moment in the film that was removed by the distributor when the film first played in the U.S. It is a profoundly disturbing sequence in which Ben and the filmmakers, drunk and looking for action, attack a couple in their kitchen, rape the woman repeatedly, and then gut them both. The scene the next morning, in which the camera slowly lingers around the trashed kitchen, would seem to suggest the aftermath of a wild party if it were not for the disemboweled body on the table.
The question becomes, then, what is the statement the filmmakers are trying to make? By self-consciously placing themselves within the text of the film as characters using their real names, the filmmakers of Man Bites Dog conflate themselves absolutely with the filmmakers of the documentary about Ben. In fact, it is useless to distinguish between the diegetic filmmakers and the extradiegetic filmmakers, as they are essentially one in the same, making the same film although for avowedly different purposes. Do they implicate themselves, then? Is the entire film a condemnation of their having made it in the first place? Do they disavow themselves of the responsibility of having made such a violent film by using the film itself to critique their own involvement? It's a logical conundrum, one that is certainly worth hashing out and likely has no definitive answer.
Not surprisingly, critical reaction to Man Bites Dog tended to focus on the film's extremes of violence and black comedy, which feed off each other and make each seem even more perverse, as the violence is often comedic and the comedy often violent. The filmmakers tend to film the violent acts in single, unbroken shots that create the genuinely unsettling appearance of reality. At other times, they give us quick montages of various victims, and even though these shots are quick, there is almost always some grisly detail that stands out and burns itself in our mind, whether that be a spurt of blood from someone's temple or the unforgettable image of a woman's dentures coming out while Ben chokes her.
Some of the violence is played strictly for laughs, such as a scene at a birthday party in which Ben accidentally shoots one of his friends in the head and then continues on eating his cake, while the other guests sit in mute shock, their faces spattered with blood. But then there are scenes that we feel are meant to be funny—particularly one in which Ben slaughters a suburban family, culminating in his smothering to death an eight-year-old kid—that are just too uncomfortable to elicit laughs.
Of course, for some, it is easy write the film off as a big, sick joke. Yet, there is too much there—too much that is unsettling and perverse in a way that just can't be laughed off easily and sticks with you long after it's over—to dismiss it as an exercise in boundary-pushing silliness. The filmmakers may not have known exactly what it was they were creating (just as their on-screen counterparts are seemingly unaware of how their filming Ben's exploits makes him all the more monstrous), but they wound up with a deeply compelling, if ultimately confused, indictment of screen violence as entertainment, one that continues to shock and confound.
|Man Bites Dog Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||September 24, 2002|
| 1.66:1 (Anamorphic)|
Man Bites Dog is presented in a new high-definition transfer in its correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with the use of small black bars on either side of the anamorphically enhanced image. The transfer, which was supervised by codirector André Bonzel, was made from a 35mm duplicate negative and digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. Given that the film is a mock exercise in cinema verité, the resulting stark black-and-white image is appropriately rough, with a slight softness and a good deal of grain throughout. This is, again, the intended look of the film, and the transfer on this disc replicates it exquisitely.
| French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
Like the image, the audio on this disc sounds a little rough and unrefined, but that is how it should be. The one-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack, which was mastered from a 35mm positive print, sounds as clear as it probably can.
| Video interview with the filmmakers|
This 10-minute interview with Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, which was previously available on the Criterion laser disc edition, was conducted in 1993 during the film's controversial theatrical run. It was conducted in a subway station and in a restaurant, and it opens with a lengthy section in which the three filmmakers walk alongside a moving sidewalk while answering questions. All three of them speak English quite well, and they discuss the genesis of Man Bites Dog, how Ben's character was developed, and the controversy over whether the film is an exploitation or critique of screen violence. Presented in 1.33:1.
No C4 for Daniel-Daniel (1989) short film by the filmmakers
Original theatrical trailer
Essay by cowriter/codirector André Bonzel
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick