With a $33,000 budget (or as the creators in the Criterion interviews indicate, zero budget that they supplemented by asking friends and family for money in between shoots every three weeks), Man Bites Dog is an edgy genre-busting film from three Belgian filmmakers shot while they were still in college studying the craft. One of the few films on Schneider’s list officially rated NC-17 and banned in several nations, this movie is violent, misogynistic, racist, degrading, gruesome, explicit,…..and absolutely hilarious. This black comedy balances two worlds – the world of funny upbeat satire in the style of Spinal Tap and completely shocking “bleak criticism of our desire to watch everyday live tilt out of balance” (Mathijs). The self-awareness of the piece blurs the line between fiction and reality so well that their metafictive narrative’s characters carry their names, they refer to borrowing the money to make the film in character, and at one point their murders reach to the bizarre level of our protagonists murdering a new documentary team documenting their documentary team documenting their murders while other murderers are fighting over victims with them during a shootout in a dim and dilapidated building. The result is something unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Not for the weak-stomached or anyone who can’t recognize postmodern humor and satire when they see it.
I absolutely loved this film from beginning to end. I didn’t know what to expect going into it, and only read internet material and the liner notes from the box prior to Mathjis’ essay in Schneider. Was it a horror film? A mockumentary? A comedy? A political and artistic statement about film? About our consumer culture as a whole? What was this film?
Honestly, it is all of the above, and more.
I laughed (almost) the entire way through. With a lively energy, the three creators of this film have made something unlike anything else in cinema – a self-reflective mockumentary that dances between horror and black comedy like nothing else. Where many films attempt this in a manner that is approachable by audiences in a way that is bankable, the three independent filmmakers responsible for this movie have taken a literal budget of no money and outlined and cobbled together a script and a film that not only tells an interesting and engaging story with characters and performances that are believable and fun (not to mention breaking the fourth wall and production standards the entire time in their use of the crew, their own names, and a variety of other tricks throughout), but makes a heavy and effective statement on cinema and audience itself. The people watching the very film we are watching as we watch it are just as important to their story and thesis as their product. This culminates in amazingly well-executed hilarious, but black moments such as the birthday dinner party, and hilarious setups that turn into terrifying and disgusting horror, such as the rape and murder sequence. No taboo is off limits in this film, from rape to infanticide, and perhaps what is most intriguing about this film is how it was made in such expert hands when the filmmakers were so poor and so new to the craft.
This film can certainly get into the ring with the works of Christopher Guest and Quentin Tarentino and hold its own – even more so considering its execution of cinéma vérité , satire, humor, violence, horror, and politics are not only effective approaches to the early years of a genre but that it almost does it better than most of the films I have seen of its kind.
Final note… I did a little research afterward and totally remember downloading a video of Bill Gates being hit in the face with a cream pie when I was a freshman in college. I remember reading that it was the work of a subversive filmmaker, and thinking it was a hilarious statement against capitalism and absolute power. Since then, Gates has retired and dedicated his life to giving his money away to great causes… Within ten years of this event, that man, Rémy Nicolas Lucien Belvaux, committed suicide at the age of thirty-nine. It is just now that I am seeing something he has created for the first time, and find myself mourning in retrospect for a young artist who sincerely had a sense of humor in wanting to bring light to changing the world for good. Today, nearing thirty-nine, I appreciate what he was able to accomplish in this lifetime and wish I could have experienced more of his work – no matter how hilariously disgusting and shocking it was. Sometimes this is precisely the kind of subversive message our world needs; Belvaux’s work is precisely the kind of art that excites me.
I watched Man Bites Dog on Criterion DVD #165.