In terms of satirical comedy, one can’t get much blacker or darker than Man Bites Dog, Belgium’s premier satire about the state and acceptance of violence in today’s day and age. Whereas films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and American Psycho are still technically hidden behind the veil of fiction, Man Bites Dog opts instead to present the film as a faux-documentary, as if these events are actually happening in the real world. Not only that, the film adds a meta layer to the mix, by having the documentary crew themselves play a part in the film’s story, becoming ever more complicit with what takes place, thus making us the audience just as complicit, even if we are not physically committing the acts. Other films have done this before, but few go the same route that Man Bites Dog takes, and even fewer go full barrel into it like this one does.
Ben is a serial killer who somehow has a film crew behind him to record and explore his life and his “work”, all while he spouts philosophically about whatever comes into his head. It’s a character study, and the character we and the film crew are studying is a cold-blooded murderer. Interestingly enough, the film was directed by a trio of filmmakers, each of whom plays their own part in the film itself: Ben, the serial killer, being one; Remy, the director, being another; and the third, Andre, being the cameraman. There are others on this faux crew, but they seem to be just as expendable as everyone else Ben encounters; Remy will sob and eulogize them for the camera afterwards, but they’re really just redshirts, or as Remy puts it, “occupational hazards”. As I said in the opener, the evolution of the plot ends up bringing the camera crew and filmmakers into Ben’s world and lifestyle, and they start taking an active part in the murders he commits. A commentary on how accepting and even encouraging the media is towards violence to suit their own ends is an obvious conclusion, and indeed this was no doubt the filmmakers’ intention. Where Man Bites Dog really succeeds in its endeavor is how gung-ho they throw themselves into their premise, roll with it, and present it with a smile to the world. The black comedy angle aside, there is a great deal of violence in this film, and even more implied; so much so that the film was given an NC-17 rating, as well as being outright banned in several countries. Honestly, given what films like Salo and Pink Flamingos get away with, Man Bites Dog comes off as somewhat tame, but maybe I’m just desensitized to violence in this manner, which may well be an additional point the film is making.
This was shot on a shoestring budget by the directing trio, who were student filmmakers at the time. Thus, the film’s extremely chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography is more a product of necessity than it is intention, but the filmmakers do make excellent use of their limited range of medium; few things in this world are as black and white as taking someone’s life, and Man Bites Dog makes the argument that media and its audience hop between the two colors so quickly that it ends up creating a blur of gray, a color we are much more apt to agree with about ourselves, but maybe not quite for the right reasons. This ticks off a good number of checkboxes in terms of making the list, and, weirdly enough, I actually had a good time with it, so there’s a bonus. Of course, the fact that I enjoyed it is exactly the point the film is making, so don’t let that go over your head.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10