'Man Bites Dog' is a brilliant but sick black comedy

July 14, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Movie bites audience.

That's "Man Bites Dog," a brisk, devastatingly nihilistic Belgian black comedy that opens for two dank days at the Charles today, one of the rare genuine NC-17 articles.

Set squarely in the foul rag and bone shop of the human spirit, it's an ersatz documentary about an ambitious filmmaking crew that signs on with the devil himself, the devil in the form of a mild, balding little man named Benoit who murders people for a living.

But Benoit is no master assassin, no suave hit man familiar from a thousand movies with an arsenal of sleek rifles and a taste for champagne. And therein lies the brilliance of the film. He instead personifies Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil," a dreary, preening, self-important little geek who inhabits the squalid regions of petty crime culture and lives by killing people for pension checks, loose change, food or just out of general irritation and boredom.

Worse, he loves being the subject of a documentary film, and he cannot stop showing off for the camera -- he's Albert Brooks with a .45 automatic. He yaks, he kills, he explains and he takes the presence of the camera in his life as validation of his own specialness, as if murderers are rare in this woeful world.

And his willingness to talk insider dope with his interviewers ("Children have porous bones, so you have to weight them down at a ratio of 4 to 1 to keep them under the surface.") and to take them on jobs and give them "exclusives" is a seductive elixir too powerful to be resisted. They know they're onto something unique and that it could get them into the big time, and so onward they press, undaunted even by an occasional death among them (the sound men keep getting wasted).

The true subject of "Man Bites Dog" is, of course, media penetration of atrocity . . . and vice versa. It's trying to get at the fault line between coverage and event and assign some subtle moral culpability to those whose claim is they "document" reality when in fact they are shaping if not inventing it. The young men -- played by the actual filmmakers themselves -- are gradually drawn into Benoit's world, until they are helping him hunt his victims, all in the pursuit of a higher Truth that they couldn't define at gunpoint. The vanity being skewered isn't the killer's, it's the artists'.

That said, it must also be admitted that the movie is sick and full of burning. Its outrage and self-assigned high moral purpose evaporate as it winds along, until, like a jaded combat soldier, it believes only in killing. Its documentation of the seedy act of ending another's life is so anti-climactic and quasi-pornographic that the movie eventually crosses its own threshold and becomes truly repugnant. I recommend it with enthusiasm only to graduate level film debauchees like myself who have seen so many killings on screen their nerve endings have been corroded. And even I blanched when Benoit suffocated a child, and then, still supine on the dead boy's body, turned to the camera and explained with whining self-justification, "You know, I don't really like to kill kids. In five years, I've only done one or two. But sometimes, it just can't be helped."

Benoit Poelvoorde is shockingly good as "Benoit." One feels his pettiness, his sloppy lack of discipline (showing off, he orders the wrong wine and gets sick all over himself) and his crudity, under the delusion that all these are virtues, when in fact they are primary colors in a portrait of a monster. Director Remy Belvaux and cinematographer Andre Bonzel (who appear in the film as "Remy" and "Andre") do a brilliant job of aping the conventions of cinema-verite, as the ragged quality of the black and white production, the jiggle of the camera, the blur of sound add to the almost claustrophobic totality of the film. It's like being locked in a coffin with an insane genius. It will not go away; it just keeps on coming. That's all it does.


"Man Bites Dog"

Starring Benoit Poelvoorde

Directed by Remy Belvaux

Released by Roxie



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