Man Bites Dog Review
Released in the early nineties, and titled C'est arrivé près de chez vous (It Happened In Your Neighbourhood), the Belgian film was retitled Man Bites Dog for English speaking countries, and soon became one of the most controversial films of the decade. Controversy often splits the camps, and Man Bites Dog will either render each viewer an applauding fan or a bitter, detesting opponent.
Essentially, the synopsis of Man Bites Dog is very simple, almost too simple. A group of young Belgian documentary filmmakers lead by Andre (André Bonzel) and Remy (Rémy Belvaux) decide to film as their latest subject a charismatic serial killer named Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde). Recording Ben's every move, the young filmmakers soon become drawn both to their subject and to the life of crime that has immersed Ben. Increasingly worried about the shocking scenes they have captured on film, the young filmmakers question the morality of their actions. Man Bites Dog is the documentary these filmmakers produced, uncut and in stark, harsh black-and-white.
Man Bites Dog exists on two cinematic levels, and it's because the secondary subtext of the film is well hidden that the film often attracts more controversy and criticism than is necessary. On the superficial level, the film is a sick, twisted, deeply hilarious exercise in murderous gratuity, given a cinema-verité gloss to further force the depravity down the audience's throats. The term 'documentary' has often been the most misunderstood terms of modern genre convention, with audiences believing that anything they view in a documentary must therefore be both realistic and truthful. What Man Bites Dog ultimately aims to question in its gory narrative is the roles of the recorder and the subject. Are the filmmakers as much of a subject in their film as their own chosen subject, which in this case is Ben? Does the presence of the recorder affect the 'reality' of their chosen subject, being that the subject is fully aware of the recorder. It's as if documentaries exist in a state in-between reality and fiction, and happily borrows from both ends of the spectrum.
Because comedy has virtually dried up, and humour constantly rehashes and pilfers older themes, the only areas that are genuinely funny anymore are the subjects that usually would be distasteful to laugh at. Man Bites Dog is funny, horrifically funny, because it subverts the documentary genre by presenting, or even championing, a serial killer as if it is his right to take lives. When Ben struggles with suffocating a child whilst discussing technique to camera, or tactically scares an old woman to force a heart attack, it's funny to watch not because murder is amusing, but because Ben is grotesquely deluded in his own acceptable level of arrogance. Had he not been a murderer, Ben would probably figure as one of the funniest comedy characters to ever be born in cinema, primarily because his pathetic physical state masks an elitist self-righteous persona that generates the ultimate superiority complex. He genuinely believes that he is providing a service to the documentary, by giving an insight into the methods of a serial killer, and this is funny because one laughs in the assumption (or indeed hope) that this character is purely a cinema construct.
It's understandable why some have found Man Bites Dog to be disgusting, because most of the time it is disgusting. Certain sequences have been banned from such countries as the United States or even Australia. Surprisingly, the film was released uncut in the United Kingdom, passed with an '18' certificate. This Criterion release is the NC-17 uncut version, thankfully restoring the rape sequence that was previously missing from all American releases. Granted, the rape sequence is one of the most distasteful sequences to ever grace cinema, but the sequence is also the most pivotal moment in the film, and to cut this sequence would be to remove the film of its killer punch-line.
The black and white pseudo-realist photography adds another grim layer to the film's content, pushing the murky levels upwards a few grades and simultaneously de-glamourising the on-screen proceedings. Had the film been in colour, it no doubt would have been much harder to swallow.
Benoît Poelvoorde's performance as Ben is masterful, and is the greatest facet of Man Bites Dog's brilliance. He seems to worryingly understand every splintered layer of Ben's persona and ego, and he generates such comic energy whilst also generating fear amongst the documentary filmmakers and the audience. His volatile behaviour only strengthens his comic state.
Rather than pander to overt gratuity for the mere sake of it, Man Bites Dog is an assured, highly controversial and yet deeply subversive piece of filmmaking aimed totally at the documentary genre. It's a film that will amuse, shock, educate, entertain and most importantly challenge the majority of its audience, and it clearly deserves to be seen by all, regardless of one's own moral code.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1, with a "pillarboxed" transfer that thankfully does not contain burnt on subtitles like the Tartan R2 release. Considering the low quality of the film's visual presentation, Criterion have provided the transfer that presents the film in the freshest of fashions without compromising on Man Bites Dog's original integrity. It's an excellent transfer, with sharp, full images in as full-focused as possible, compared to the soft transfer of the R2 Tartan release, which is a pale imitation by comparison. Criterion supervised an extensive 35mm remastering of the print, and the results are splendid.
Presented in the film's original mono mix, the sound to Man Bites Dog is very good, despite lacking a full, dynamic spatial range due to the limited mono mix, and mainly dialogue driven soundstage. Criterion remastered the soundtrack to 24-Bit, and overall the film's audible presentation is more polished and distinguished as a result.
Menu: A static but well designed menu system made up of Polaroid photos that ties-in nicely with the film's style, along with some decent sound portions from the film.
Packaging: Presented in the usual amaray casing with a stark, stylish and highly controversial cover artwork. The Criterion spine number is #165 and an eight page fold-out booklet is included inside. Featured on the booklet is a short essay on the film by its co-director André Bonzel, and an interesting critique on the film by New York Press film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, along with production notes and chapter listings.
Making Cinema: This is an excellent array of behind-the-scenes stills, accessible via user navigation. Be warned, some of the stills are quite gruesome to view.
Interview With The Filmmakers: This is a 1993 interview with the film's three co-stars/directors that lasts for nine minutes. It's an interesting and amusing interview with an obviously talented trio of filmmakers, even if their English is slightly stilted. Presented in fullscreen.
No C4 For Daniel-Daniel: This is a fascinating short film made in the student days of the co-director's lives, and was produced in 1989. It runs for nearly twelve minutes, and is very funny if one buys into the offbeat style that was so characteristic of Man Bites Dog. It's a kind of pretend, extended trailer for a superhero/spy movie, complete with the usual send-up of the regular conventional motifs that litter the genre.
Happening In Your Neighbourhood: This is a very funny two minute trailer for the film, that neatly packs the film's appeal into a short summary.
Considering the film is a cheap product of the early nineties, Man Bites Dog has been presented in a brilliant transfer with removable subtitles, some excellent if short extras and a very nice overall package. The DVD not only continues Criterion's impressive reputation, but may also re-ignite the controversial debate surrounding this brilliant film.