Winner International Critic's Prize - 1992 Cannes Film Festival. Metro Media Award - 1992 Toronto International Film Festival
After its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, critics were walking around in a rather stunned daze, assessing the daring black comedy made by a trio of film school grads from Belgium. Was it deliberately so twisted? Was it a prescient statement about reality material for the fickle viewing public? Was the film a genuine statement on violence in modern society?
The filmmakers - both in the included video featurette and in print - have maintained the film was always about filmmaking - the crazy things that are required to make a movie - but it's clear from the first scenes that thought went into this vicious satire, ridiculing the celebrity status of the serial killer by treating him as a working class stiff with odd hours, but dedicated to his craft and the practical sensibilities to kill (grannies, mommies, kiddies, cabbies, but never your loving family circle, or violinist girlfriend). Ben dumps the bodies into a favourite gravel pit, but maintains a perfectly normal relationship with his babe… unless of course he's putting on a show for her…
Criterion released the film in 1994 on laserdisc, offering the original European cut that featured the smothering of a child and gang rape of a woman - two scenes that made North American censors demand some careful snipping. The DVD sports a new transfer, and though the film still looks rough, the high contrast visuals and rough audio stems were deliberately degraded to add verisimilitude to the fake documentary style… unless of course the filmmakers were just putting on a show for us…
As a first film concept, "Man Bites Dog" is brilliant, and the movie remains a pioneering example on how to make a film with no money and threadbare equipment; just make a point of writing a solid story, and develop the characters as the trio did. Arguably the only flaw of the film is Benoit Poelvoorde's ranting, which even his co-directors allowed to run on at the expense of the film's overall pacing. The 1994 laser dealt with the film using the best elements at the time, plus stills, liner notes, the trio's student 16mm short, and a set of video interviews mimicking an 'on the street' docu quality.
The interviews - shot in a subway station on a people mover, in front of a cinema, and at a street-side café - reflect the film's style, but suffer from the trio's weak English; a good deal of running time involves their onscreen efforts to find the right English words, and while not a criticism of their linguistic skills, their comments are unrewarding.
Criterion's DVD merely ports over the laser's extras - though adding new notes by co-director Bonzel in English - but the disc feels outdated. Columbia's made strides in presenting several films - notably the German thriller "Anatomy" - with commentaries in the languages of the filmmakers/actors, with optional English subtitles; that's something that should have been done to supplant the old video interviews. It's been 10 years since "Man Bites Dog" 'entered our neighborhoods,' and much has happened in terms of reality TV programming, audience fascination with the morbid, and the cult of the serial killer who, like Ben, has become a superhero and franchise in the guise of cinema's beloved Hannibal the Cannibal. The essay by Matt Zoller Seitz deals somewhat with these issues, but André Bonzel's own essay is a weak substitute for a proper commentary track; besides the aforementioned, there's a lot of production aspects that would have made a fascinating track for film fans and filmmakers alike.
More importantly, several key questions aren't answered: What happened to the trio during those ten years? How did they deal with the meteoric success? Did Hollywood give them a chance, or were studios so shocked by their first gritty effort, that the trio were dismissed as one-hit wonders? Benoit Poelvoorde continues to act, while his co-directors have more or less disappeared off the map. An opportunity to newly assess the film was missed. Hopefully Criterion will revisit the title, much as was done for Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." There's a compelling featurette waiting to be made on star film school graduates that had their shot, and the difficulties that remained in achieving genuine careers instead of footnote infamy.
Snapshots from the set - namely a few preparatory gore moments and the rape sequence - precede a few candid stills, including the trio looking quite dapper and proud in Cannes, but some examination of the art campaign remains neglected. (Featuring Ben in a post-trigger stance with blood shooting up from an unseen victim, some countries stuck with the original stained baby pacifier, while others went for a jawbone, and more conservative distributors simply zoomed into Ben.)
The film's trailer, with the original title "It Happened In Your Neighborhood," is relatively short, but efficiently conveys the film's satirical tone and no doubt helped move the curious into theatres.
The trio's student film, "No C4 for Daniel-Daniel" is a spoof-trailer for an epic action hero film, and was shot in anamorphic 16mm (though presented non-anamorphic on the DVD), and combines a good array of locations so Poelvoorde can pounce, wrestle and scream "SLIMAN!" while child molesters, evil spies, assassins, and jungle creatures surround him. There's also a politically incorrect Bonzel in black face as Daniel-Daniel's African companion, Ambroise, who incessantly says "Bonjour." The matting goes beyond the old 2.55:1 CinemaScope ratio - a ploy that gives the over-the-top spoof an extra grain of absurdity. There's some consistent scratches, the colours are slightly off, and the transfer seems to have been made from an old 3/4" master, but the film's warped humour definitely foreshadows the trio's feature effort.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan