Man Bites Dog

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

4 October

Belgium is created, 1830

On this day in 1830, the state and kingdom of Belgium was created, after a revolution against the rule of King William I which saw the southern, mostly Catholic, significantly French-speaking states break away from the largely protestant, significantly Flemish-speaking United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Though ostensibly linguistic and religious in origin, the revolution was in fact fuelled by economics – the “Belgian” territories were more populous though far poorer, more rural, less well represented in government, than the northern “Dutch” territories. On being granted independence by the Treaty of London in 1830, the Belgian National Congress voted for Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld to be their king (he had previously turned down the crown of Greece). Interestingly, he was known as Leopold I, “King of the Belgians” rather than King of Belgium, to suggest that he was king by appointment rather than by some mystical relationship to the soil. Belgium was unusual in an age of nationalism for being a country of mixed ethnicities – French, Dutch and German. After becoming independent the country rapidly industrialised and set about gaining colonies and an empire. One thing that didn’t change was its reputation as the “battlefield of Europe” which had been gained from the 16th century onwards. In fact both the First and Second World Wars saw bloody battles fought in Belgium.

Man Bites Dog (1992, dir: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde)

The journalistic phrase “man bites dog” refers to a news story that is noteworthy because it reverses the normal run of events. It’s what this Belgian film is about. Though it’s also about the violence itself too, as evidence there’s the onslaught of appalling brutishness and terrible degradation that co-directors/stars Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde visit upon us, the audience, in the name of entertainment (theirs rather than ours). We’re following a documentary team keen to discover what makes a serial killer (played by Benoît Poelvoorde) tick. Ben is a fun guy, charming, family-loving, clever. But as the “documentary” progresses we start to see another side of him as he subjects the camera crew, and us, to a series of increasingly savage scenarios involving violence, torture, rape and murder, with the crew becoming increasingly involved in the grisliness. Shot in handheld black and white and made on a tiny budget, Man Bites Dog is a key exhibit in the development of the mock-doc, a genuinely different type of film when it debuted, which paved the way for all the found footage and mock-docs to come, from the Blair Witch onwards. For reasons that must be guessed at it is generally hated by film critics, who seem to be upset that it appears to be sitting on its hands when it comes to taking a moral position. This is a bad man, so why isn’t the film saying so? The answer could be because the film-makers aren’t making a film about the killer but one about the people making a film about the killer. Satire often unsettles critics, who for all their sophistication would rather that audiences, and themselves, were treated as passive consumers, rather than as part of a system of cultural production and consumption, which sounds a bit like Communism. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – which operates in similar territory – got pretty much the same bum end of the pineapple.

Why Watch?

  • Funny and shocking, a hard one to pull off
  • The daddy of the ugly mock-docs
  • Poelvoorde the comedian in a completely different role
  • Uncompromising

Man Bites Dog – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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