The only way is ethics for Man
Written, directed and produced by Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde (all of whom play starring roles), Man Bites Dog is a cross between mock-cinema verité, à la Spinal Tap but with the violence turned up to eleven, and the ultimate reality TV show. The film shows an amateur film crew who are following a loquacious and charismatic serial killer named Ben. Ben kills to make a living. Strangely he is not seeking revenge or attempting to surmount a past trauma, in fact an interview with his mother reveals that as a child he was “such a cheerful little boy and blonde as a field of wheat!”; instead he simply kills people and takes their money. The film crew passively record his every move, losing a handful of soundmen along the way (a running joke), but slowly become ever more complicit in his crimes.
The film’s mordant sense of humour is usually found in Ben’s blasé approach to murder. Ultra-violent scenes of Ben murdering young and old are interspersed with face-to-camera soliloquies in which he bemoans the aesthetic revulsion of low-income housing or spouts poetry about the ethereal grace of pigeons. The overall effect is similar to Peter Jackson’s early “splatstick” films which sought to combine scenes of extreme violence with verbal wit or the physical comedy of Keaton and Chaplin. This creates a very strange tension in the viewer. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, the banality of the atrocities depicted is its most distressing feature and similarly Ben’s charisma doesn’t act as comic relief but instead amplifies the horror.
This gleeful amorality fell foul of most censors but interestingly, the BBFC released Man Bites Dog for public distribution with an 18 certificate, whereas Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, released six years prior, was subject to stringent cuts. Both contain scenes of graphic brutality, and yet the BBFC thought that Man Bites Dog did not need the scissors, due to it being a subtitled black-and-white foreign language film primarily designed for an art-house audience of film buffs and arty types. In other words, the damaging effect on the general public would be minimal because they would never get to see it; self-censorship, perhaps?
The opening scene is composed of a single shot showing Ben aboard a train wrestling a young woman into a nearby compartment and strangling her with piano wire. It was shocking enough seeing Javier Bardem’s character do the same thing in No Country for Old Men but even more so in Man Bites Dog when it suddenly cuts to Ben happily describing to the camera the ballast-to-body ratio of sinking a corpse: “For old people multiply by five. Old bones are pourous”. The film goes on like this and soon your critical faculties are deadened and you, along with the crew, become anaesthetised to the violence (or maybe you’ve already been de-sensitised after a lifetime of PlayStation abuse).
However, when you’re beginning to think this is just a murderous pitch-black comedy, the laughter stops as a woman is raped and disembowelled by Ben and the crew. After a sequence which sees them stumbling out of a bar three sheets to the wind, howling ‘Cinema, Cinema’ by Jean-Marc Chenut, they happen upon a couple in their home and what follows is equally if not more distressing than a similar scene in A Clockwork Orange. This scene got the film banned in Sweden and yet it is at this point the audience is forced into a moment of self-reflection, questioning their earlier enjoyment, as they themselves have become complicit in the ultimate reality TV show nightmare.
Shot in 16mm black and white stock, the film shares the same grainy aesthetic found in contemporary video journalism and certain scenes often bare an uncanny resemblance to Arthur Felig’s flash-lit crime scene photographs. A similar technique was used in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) which was shot in colour and released in monochrome to give the film some sort of historic authenticity. The overall effect is a heightened sense of realism. Further, the handheld camera sequences as well as the use of live sound (there is no music), gives the film such a realistic documentary feel that the rape sequence becomes quasi-snuff. After the MPAA gave this film an NC17 rating (largely due to this scene) to gain an R rating the film had to make a substantial amount of cuts and you can guess which was first to be jettisoned.
Man Bites Dog was prescient in its prediction of the rise of reality TV and the public’s appetite for televised “real-life” situations. Its impact comes from removing the audience’s usual comfort in knowing that regardless of what we’re watching: ‘this is just a film’. Despite receiving the SACD award at Cannes in 1992 and subsequently amassing a huge cult following, Man Bites Dog continues to divide audiences. Is the violence merely a cathartic spectacle or a studied contemplation of the degradation of societal values – by removing the rape scene, the censors in the US and elsewhere inhibited the audiences’ ability to fully wrestle with these questions. Decide for yourselves: after all you can only be desensitised if you watch it.