Synapse to Cintax
Are You Gonna Bark…
…all day little doggy? Or Are You Going to Bite?
It might seem as if I’ve been quiet for a while. In reality though, I’ve been shacked up in my cinematic-hermit’s lair studiously viewing film after film until collapsing in many a stupor. Doubt away Thomas but ‘tis true (give or take a few lies – I’m not even sure what a cinematic-hermit’s lair resembles). Still, even amidst such obsessive behaviour, I tend not to watch the same film more than once. That was until I judged it high time to re-visit a film that left its indelible mark on me many moons ago. A low-budget film that well and truly shocked and paradoxically made me laugh when I first watched it via the joys (joys?) of a bedraggled E-180 VHS tape. In truth, this probably added to its inglorious appeal – something which high production values and Dolby 8-0-0-0-0-0.1 can never fully surmount. The film in question: Man Bites Dog.
This movie always sticks out in my mind as one of those landmark cult pieces I resort to naming when asked what films I like. Admittedly, it’s done in a deliberate and self-conscious attempt to earn kudos, especially in light of the fact I have precious little. Pitiful self-aggrandising attempts aside though, Man Bites Dog is truly a fantastic piece of low-budget cinema; truly disorientating and of questionable taste. Directed, written and produced by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, it also stars all three using their first names. DIY at its core (filmed wholly in black and white as if to prove as much), it’s a satirical set-up from the off; ostensibly, it is about a film crew who are filming a documentary about a serial killer (Benoit). How long they have followed him, and moreover to what ends, remains unclear. But the level of trust they have garnered – building up through their gradual desensitization – eventually shifts from documenting his crimes to their personal involvement.
The title itself refers to a journalistic phenomenon in which an unusual event is more likely to be reported as news than an ordinary, everyday occurrence. The effect being that, since rare events appear in headlines while common events rarely do, the rare events seem more common than they are. The title is coy about whether the actions of this serial killer are assumed to be commonplace or a rarity. One might even infer that Benoit inhabits an alternative world in which his killings are neither frowned upon nor seen as abnormal. In fact, there are several times when it becomes difficult to ascertain how many people are actually aware of Benoit’s brutal pastime or whether they deem it to be an innate ‘affliction,’ and his killings an acceptable side effect. The birthday cake with gun embossed hardly shows him to be a shrinking violet and there’s a surreal moment when the film crew stumble upon another film crew following, presumably, yet another killer. The casual observer might begin to wonder whether his actions thus become commonplace and typical, and anything but headline news.
A principle point established at its outset – as its ‘hero’ almost takes on some sort of celebrity value simply by being on film – is that this serial killer is deemed worthy of engorged celebrity status. Or maybe it’s more a case of the power generated through being the subject filmed. More to the point, have we not seen this more recently in films such as Mesrine? In the case of the latter, Jacques Mesrine almost descends into a ridiculous parody of pantomime villainy. His is an incendiary character that teases the media and establishes an ignominious reputation which excites its audience; howsoever much it might deny that to be the case.
There are a slew of films in which one can draw comparisons; Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer immediately comes to mind although Henry’s nihilism and inherent nastiness marks him and the film apart. The inspiration to play with the viewer’s expectations at every turn draws it closer to the likes of The Last Broadcast (which plays with an audience’s perspective of the unfurling action), The Blair Witch Project, Series 7: The Contenders and, in light of its satirical nature, American Psycho. Although it’s hard to see Benoit as completely aligned with Bateman’s psychotic yuppy fantasist, he is similarly self-obsessed.
In fact, the protagonist’s wannabe-thesp creates much of the humour simply through his repeated desire to effusively break into poetry when given half a chance. As one would doubtless expect, the humour is dark…very dark. For instance, after racking up a few victims and returning to the car, he looks in, sees the taxi driver and states aghast: “I completely forgot about this one.” But that’s where it treads a deliberately thin line – it’s hard-hitting and hard-to-stomach at some of its severer moments. And what is frighteningly stark is the way in there are fewer and fewer explanations (read: none) for the killings as it goes on. The frank pointlessness of Benoit’s lifestyle becomes exposed and the violence irrevocably separated from its initial comic intent.
One thing’s for sure; Man Bites Dog is certainly not for the faint-hearted and, for me, it remains unforgettable. Short of gimmicks or pricey effects, it accomplishes much more than many movies have tried to do on comparatively vast budgets. And while my interpretations cannot be held unanimous (the beauty of a film such as this one is how open it leaves itself to various interpretations), the fact that it can conjure such discussion marks it out as particularly special. I think that’s newsworthy enough for this article – and not a single dog bitten in its making.