Tuesday, December 4, 2007

MAN BITES DOG Movie Review


A small film crew, consisting of a director/interviewer, a cameraman, and a sound engineer have been chronicling the exploits of a serial killer, Ben, in Belgium. Ben is well-groomed, well-spoken (even if quite misled), poetic, and above all charming. He works his way from town-to-town, killing and choosing his victims at random, waxing on how to properly dispose of a body, speaking about the de-evolution of towns, and always funding the film crew with the money he takes from his victims.

There is a catch though. As Ben's murders progress, he involves the film crew more and more in first the body disposals, and then the murders themselves. At first, the crew is excited to be a part of the murders even begin to like what they are doing, but as Ben's ambitious slayings, which have no boundary or reason, begin to pile up, the crew realize that they have become part of a horrible experiment of their own creation, and only their footage may survive to tell the tale.

This pseudo-documentary, which is shot in black and white on grainy film using handheld cameras (the fictional crew is also the film's actual crew) can in retrospect be seen as a harbinger for the clout of reality television shows and increasingly exploitative news programs and stories that started plaguing the airwaves only a few years after the film's release. For that, the writing and character arc here is borderline genius.

Ben (played with panache by BenoƮt Poelvoorde, who eerily resembles comedian Ryan Stiles in a bizarro world kind of way), much like the reality TV stars who would follow, believes that the world revolves around him, and expects those around him to hang on his every word, whether he be eloquently speaking poetry about pigeons, or going on and on with quite misinformed racist remarks. But as with all short-lived, brightly burning stars, his very remarks and actions that lead him to where he is ultimately become his downfall.

Both the English re-name MAN BITES DOG, and its original title C'EST ARRIVE PRES DE CHEZ VOUS (roughly It Happened in Your Neighborhood or It Took Place Close To Your Home) call to mind the shocking and eye-grabbing headlines of newspapers vying for attention. The film, which takes itself quite seriously, subtly leans toward parody and exaggeration of what at the time was being sold as newsworthy stories, and the spectacle given to evil. At one point in the film, Ben and his crew cross paths with another serial killer who is being followed by a film crew, which can be taken as a mockery of the copycat and bandwagon mentality of entertainment.

As a whole, MAN BITES DOG plays out as a pitch-black comedy. This can be attributed mostly to Ben's performance and fantastic monologues. One of the many highlights involves Ben explaining to the crew the proper ballast ratios to keep a body underneath water, depending on if they are man, woman, child or midget (their bones are denser, and thus need less rocks) and speaks as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The cut-aways between ultra-violence and conversations also serves as a shocking jump that one can not help but laugh at.

Originally released on VHS in the states by Miramax, which cut out two of the more gruesome scenes, it has since been released uncut on DVD by Criterion. These two controversial scenes involve Ben murdering a child, and Ben and the crew following a woman home and raping her. These scenes are obviously difficult to watch, but they are important to the overall insanity that dwells in his mind, and his complete influence over the film crew. More importantly, they are shown as the brutal and unforgivable acts that they are, and not glamorize in the least.

Since the film's release, news stories, television "documentaries", and the horrible plague of reality television shows which continue to pour out, have since far surpassed the extremes of entertainment that MAN BITES DOG was trying to bring attention to, and watched with fresh eyes today, MAN BITES DOG is almost quaint in how it documents and portrays its subject. Still, this is an important piece of cinema which deserves to be seen, and can still be effectively used as a warning about just how far someone can go when the camera is on them.


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