Retro Review: "Man Bites Dog" (1992)
Do you like documentaries? How about serial killers? Are you a fan of satire with nasty, gore-splattered teeth? If you answered yes to at least one of these questions then you need to step up to the plate for one of France's more disturbing (and brilliantly dark) films to ever grace a screen.
There's nothing like the power of a killer recommendation. It's the main reason I love my job as a film critic. Passing on the knowledge of a particularly great piece of cinema is rewarding as hell; movies are our escape from the humdrum of our jobs, kids, responsibilities, et cetera. When you can sit down and get lost for a couple of hours, well...that's a magical reset button. So, when my editor at Horror Talk gave me the "what the fuck do you mean you've never seen Man Bites Dog?!" treatment it quickly jumped to the top of my list.
Thank you, Steve. I needed that shot in the arm today.
Man Bites Dog is a black and white "documentary" that tells the story of Benoît (Benoît Poelvoorde), a serial killer who loves the camera and the sound of his own voice. He's charming, witty, and utterly without remorse. A desperate film crew on a shoestring budget, desperate to make it and get their film out into the world at all costs, records his story. Benoit kills all across the spectrum- men, women, children, the elderly, even mailmen. He finances his lifestyle with the rewards of his kills and has rules about who's worth killing and who's not, though he breaks his own rules frequently (he's no Dexter Morgan). Along the way, the crew will go from objective documentarians to willing accomplices to active participants.
I remember hearing about this at the time it came out and won the SACD at Cannes for Best Feature Screenplay. I was curious, but my immediate response was to scoff at the notion of watching a black and white French film (hypocrisy for a guy who rewatches Clerks every month or two, I know). Having experienced it for the first time at nearly 40 years old, though, I can say that young me wouldn't have gotten it at all.
The violence on display is graphic and unflinching. No one is spared from this pompous douchebag and his killing spree. I call him a douchebag simply because he is; trying so hard to be intelligent and classy. The style is a French Patrick Bateman. He expounds on art and culture. In the next breath, he's explaining what the proper weight ratio is for sinking the body of a child versus that of an elderly person. The crew is clearly enamored with him.
Better yet, Man Bites Dog works on multiple levels as a dark comedy of questionable taste (depending on your own sense of humor) and a satire with a hell of a lot to say about not only man's obsession with violence but what people will do to become famous. Both Benoît and the crew want to be big stars. He even finances their film in an act of the proverbial snake eating its own tail! The body count rises and the rules are broken, yet no one questions that the show must go on. It's a story as old as time taken to the extreme. All you have to do is turn on one of the 24-hour news networks or pull up YouTube and you realize that Man Bites Dog isn't all that extreme after all.
It's almost prophetic.
The madcap pacing is frenetic and engaging. There is no lag anywhere, and it is more than deserving of the dreaded NC-17 rating. The gang rape scene is uncomfortable watch; the up close and personal nature of it enhanced by the black and white. Messages (both in your face and subliminal) assault you throughout. When the end comes it is genuinely shocking, though you should have seen it all along.
Of course it's comical in presentation. That's precisely why so many people call it trashy, hideous, and an abomination. The ironic part is that a comical presentation is the only way it can be stomached.
Now that's what I call next level writing. Thanks again, Steve!