Man Bites Dog: strong satire on Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, “C’est arrive près de chez vous” (“It could happen in your neighbourhood”)  aka “Man Bites Dog” (1992)

Made by four Belgian film students, this mock documentary on the daily routines of a professional killer remains a powerful criticism of Western cultures’ obsession with sadistic violence. Although it often looks aimless and appears to be a series of skits, it’s actually well constructed with a definite narrative and an overall mood that’s at first light-hearted, jokey and comic with Spinal Tap moments but becomes darker and sinister towards the end. Shot on grainy black-and-white, the film has the air of a fly-on-the-wall independent documentary as a film crew zealously follows Ben (BenoÎt Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily or monthly routine of robbing and/or killing postmen, pensioners, security guards, taxi drivers and various others he meets.

Chatty and friendly, Ben introduces the film-makers and viewers to his family (Poelvoorde’s real-life relatives), girlfriend Valérie and his boxing trainer throughout the film. He expounds or rants at length on a variety of topics. Among other things, viewers learn from Ben that there is an art to weighting dead people with ballast so when they are dropped into rivers they don’t float and that people’s lives can be improved or blighted by the decisions governments make on urban renewal and aesthetic details of architecture and interior design. He fancies himself a gourmet and treats the film crew to a sumptuous lunch of mussels and wine. Viewers see him playing a musical duet on the piano with Valerie on flute and sparring with his trainer at the grotty sports club. He is interested in art, literature and film culture and spouts poetry (self-composed and crappy) about pigeons and the change of seasons. Altogether a thoroughly cultured and intellectual if pretentious being is our Ben; but how does he finance his activities? – on the first day of every month, he kills postmen to steal pension cheques and visits the homes of the people they’re addressed to, kills them and looks under the beds and cupboards for more money. To keep limber as it were, he robs and kills other people in hilarious sequences that reveal his ignorance and prejudices towards others as well as his education and culture.

As the film carries on, the film-makers – and with them, the audience – become deeply involved and implicated in Ben’s crimes as witnesses and participants. The change is subtle and gradual: Ben begins to finance the making of the documentary and directs parts of it himself; the film-makers help him chase a boy and participate in a gang rape / murder of a woman. Ben orders them also to re-bury bodies in a quarry he uses to dump his victims when the water dries up. Viewers, initially charmed by Ben’s warmth and generosity, now see his arrogant and more psychopathic side, lacking in true empathy and compassion for others. Sure enough his pride and smugness get the better of him, he makes some slip-ups and he ends up being chased by a never-seen criminal gang and the police who jail him. On his release, Ben discovers the criminal gang has killed his family and girlfriend, and his life and those of the film-makers are in grave danger.

Viewers stand as much indicted as the film crew itself as observers and accomplices, however passive, in Ben’s trail of mayhem and chaos. The handheld camera style and use of frequent close-ups create intimacy and draw viewers in as voyeurs. When Ben and his crew meet another film crew following a criminal in an abandoned building he uses as his hide-out, we find ourselves rooting for Ben as the film crews prepare for a stand-off. Uncomfortable questions about the sensationalisation / trivialisation of violence by mass media in our society, the ways in which reality TV shows encourage people to behave in extreme ways, celebrity worship and the numbing effect continuous exposure to violence and trauma must have on viewers’ mental states arise. The relationship between a film crew and the subject that is the focus of its film is also questioned – how objective can a documentary be when its subject and the film crew are friends? – and the Spinal Tap sequence of two sound-men dying one after the other, each leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend called Marie-Paule, while funny, also makes for uncomfortable viewing. At what point does a film or any other venture become so important that people’s lives become secondary to it? The project takes on a life of its own and Ben exploits the film-makers’ friendship and hero-worship of him into making the film a never-ending diary celebrating his banal exploits to feed his ego. For all his supposed sophistication as an aesthete, Ben lacks the self-reflective insight, the depth of feeling and emotion, and empathy needed to be a true aesthete and a talented poet.

The film does become repetitive and the meeting of the film crews in the hide-out surely alerts viewers that ideas are starting to run out. After this point, the film seems to lose direction although in fact unseen criminals associated with the other crook followed by his own film crew are now trailing Ben and his crew. At the same time Ben’s crimes become more serious and brutal and viewers should consider the possibility that if he didn’t have a film crew following him around, Ben would confine himself to cutting queues for nursing homes and denying thousands of dogs in Belgium the pleasure of chasing posties. Ben mugs for the camera and some scenes where he is drunk could have been edited or cut altogether. On the technical side the film-makers do a good job of knitting all the various skits into a seamless, smoothly flowing whole and the skits have the appearance of naturally following on from one another even if they actually didn’t. How much of the film was improvised, how much was scripted and how much just happened to be there at the time of filming – especially the hospital scene with Ben being in the same room as an elderly patient engaging a nurse in verbal jousting over his toilet habits – is hard to tell.

At once compelling yet repellent, looking unfocussed as it progresses but with a definite goal in mind, this film still has a lot of power to shock and intrigue audiences. The nature of violence in Western societies, our fascination with it and how that fascination is pushed and manipulated for profit by media organisations and others, how that affects our psyches and might determine our attitudes and behaviour in situations where diplomacy rather than violence is called for, and the attitude that people are only worthwhile when they have cash or can be exploited (Ben only kills people if they have money) – these issues continue to make “Man Bites Dog” more relevant than it was when first released. Education and culture prove not be civilising influences on a mind lacking in self-examination and compassion for other people and the central character of Ben turns out to be as hollow and cold as the society being satirised.