The 1992 Belgian mockumentary C’est arrivé près de chez vous / Man Bites Dog (or, somewhat literally, It Happened in Your Neighborhood) is one of those films that is neither bad nor good, and not really its own “thing,” either. By that I mean that it is manifestly influenced by works that came before it, so it is nothing original, while also displaying techniques that other films have expanded upon. Yet, since most of these techniques and themes were not originally created within Man Bites Dog, it cannot be said to be influential in its own right. Rather, it is a conduit between other, often better, films.
Shot in black and white, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Man Bites Dog follows a serial killer, Benoit (Benoît Poelvoorde), as he kills and then disposes of a myriad of bodies. The film’s premise is that, by recording Benoit’s actions, the camera crew shares complicity in the evil deeds, and later even participates in them by disposing of bodies and raping a woman. They even accept financing from Benoit, out of his stolen booty. Naturally, here the film loses all claims to subtlety and effective satire, as well as hints of plausibility.
When later, Benoit is captured by the police – after failing to kill the latest in a string of mailmen, due to his wearing a neck brace for an injury sustained in a boxing match – no charges are brought against the crew, despite the cops having evidence of the filmed crimes. To see how Man Bites Dog fails, compare its rape scene with the one in A Clockwork Orange. Much is similar, including the helpless husband watching, but in the latter film – its cinéma vérité style notwithstanding – the violent scene evokes none of the revulsion and horror engendered by the “fictive” rape in the 1971 Stanley Kubrick effort. The reason? One word: screenplay. A Clockwork Orange has a great script; Man Bites Dog‘s is a mess.
Benoit is not a real serial killer, even in the fictive world of the film. He lacks the subtlety and despite sciolistic braggadocio to the camera, he also lacks the real hubris. All that in spite of his speaking of ballast to sink corpses, condemning shoddy workmanship in buildings where he has dumped bodies, and looking to see if a black male victim of his has a bigger penis than a white victim. Aside from the irreality of the crew’s culpability in the crimes is that of friends and family members who seem to know of his “hobby.” When Benoit, while at a dinner table late in the film, kills a man with an interest in his girlfriend, none of them reacts poorly to it. Yes, there is nudity and violence, but it is so over the top and cartoonish that the NC-17 rating it initially garnered was a joke that pointed up how much folly such ratings are.
In the end, Benoit and the crew are gunned down, as the film rolls from the camera on the floor until it ends. Clearly, this was an inspiration for The Blair Witch Project (1999), just as the repeated gag of the film crew’s sound men being accidentally killed in Benoit’s adventures is a take off from the deaths by accident of the drummers in This Is Spinal Tap. And it is this “on the fence between other films” status that makes Man Bites Dog a genial failure.
Man Bites Dog was directed by Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux (who threw a custard pie at Microsoft’s Bill Gates in Brussels in 1998; Belvaux – according to reports – killed himself in 2006), and André Bonzel, and written by the trio plus Vincent Tavier. The DVD by the Criterion Collection lacks an audio commentary, offering only a trailer and a brief interview with the film’s three principals. In the accompanying booklet there are also a couple of essays on Man Bites Dog, one of which was written by Bonzel.
Its frat-boy humor is what ultimately kills Man Bites Dog, making it a lesser entry of the genre that includes the Christopher Guest mockumentaries. Given the subject matter, the film would have been more effective as a “straight” mockumentary playing along the lines of a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. As is, Man Bites Dog is just a lower-budget version of Oliver Stone’s hit-and-miss Natural Born Killers, which itself would have worked better had it played things straighter, like Kalifornia.
Also, despite being under one hundred minutes, Man Bites Dog loses steam midway through. It would have been far more effective had it lasted one single hour. As it is, the film becomes less of a critique of the media using violence and more of a pornographic pile-on that simply bores. After the tenth body or so there is no horror left, even if anyone had chills to start with. Worse yet, despite changing his methods of death, Benoit is wholly predictable (for instance, each first of the month he kills another mailman) and sloppy (he leaves fingerprints everywhere, so that in reality he would never have gotten past three or four victims). Had Man Bites Dog been a documentary on an unrelated subject and then slowly gave us hints of Benoit’s darker nature, it would have worked much better.
The filmmakers countered such criticism by claiming that the film is not about violence, but about the day-to-day life of anyone, and the main character just happened to be a killer. If that was so, though, then why is Man Bites Dog not about one of the mailmen Benoit kills? It could have ended with the murder of the lead character, and been a comment on how easily people accept such violence and death. Thus, the filmmakers’ claims are disingenuous and merely an attempt to minimize criticisms of structural flaws with both the film and its screenplay. Technically, too, Man Bites Dog falls into triteness, such as shots of endless running and handheld cameras even though the scenes in question do not demand those techniques, which end up being merely low-budget razzle-dazzle to pad out the film’s length.
A serious problem with its screenplay is that the people killed in Man Bites Dog can never affect the viewer in a visceral way. They are mere chattel for slaughter, not characters we care about. They are dead setups for Benoit’s jokes – or less, things to merely get him from point A to point B to propel the putative plot. In short, there is no heft to Man Bites Dog. It is occasionally funny, but it asks no deeper queries of society or of the viewer, and certainly gives no answers. It is an exercise, period – but one with no possible benefit since the only answer and reason for it is that old Hannah Arendt fallacy: the banality of evil, which is, let’s face it, triter than its claim. Benoit, despite the filmmakers’ intent, is nothing but a frat boy. He says nothing, does nothing, and there is no logical – even in the film’s skewed universe – reason that he should be of interest, unlike, perhaps, the Italian killer he kills, whose alleged Mafia ties end up doing in Benoit and the crew.
At least in a film like American Psycho, one can gauge the silliness of the cartoon violence by the fact that none of it happened – even within the world of the film; they were all fantasies of the lead character. The faux documentary style of Man Bites Dog, however, does not allow the filmmakers that out, and its lack essentially suffocates the film under its pretenses. Yet, true to its nature, Man Bites Dog never really lets loose in the other direction – in the style of Borat, i.e., that it is a comedy, first and foremost, not some deep psychological exploration. Thus, it does not engender enough chills, cogitations, or guffaws, and remains a gray lumpenmenschen of a film, loaded with potential, but killed by its creators’ lack of skill and vision – rather than by a rainbow of tears, be they of fear or laughter, like Charlie Chaplin’s underrated Monsieur Verdoux. Man Bites Dog sits on a fence that is none too stylish, and even less effective at achieving its aim. Yet, it is the viewer who gets the splinters. Thanks, Benoit.
© Dan Schneider
C’est arrivé près de chez vous / Man Bites Dog a.k.a. It Happened in Your Neighborhood (1992). Director: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel. Screenplay: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Vincent Tavier. Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Jean-Marc Chenut, Alain Oppexxi, Vincent Tavier.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.