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A classic of Belgian cinema, and I'm not joking!
on 8 May 2005
Anyone asked to name a classic of Belgian cinema can simply point to this film, a production all the more remarkable for its bargain basement provenance. Made by three film students with a budget which makes shoestrings look like a luxury, "Man Bites Dog" ("C'est arrivé près de chez vous") is proof that making a memorable movie depends more on talent and a good story than on vast amounts of capital and an over-indulgence in special effects.
Three young film makers follow the exploits of Benoit, a mass murderer and petty criminal, and document his philosophy of life and pride in the professionalism of his work. Benoit murders people, quite instrumentally, to obtain money. Or because they get in the way. He's not a 'serial' killer with a fixation about a victim type or a drive to assert himself. He's just a guy, going about his business. The murders, the crimes are shocking because they occur in such a natural setting - the killing is unheralded, unanticipated.
"I usually start the month with a postman!" Even killer's have their routines. Benoit explains his theories about robbery and murder, provides a masterclass in the disposal of bodies, expresses his concerns about the murder of children (it attracts too much media attention), and recounts his theories about why old people are better bets for robbery than the middle classes.
It is a film of quite shocking, deliberately disturbing violence, not least in the casual nature of the rape scene. Shot in naturalistic manner - black and white, hand held camera, exactly as if three young film makers are keeping a documentary diary of the crimes and lifestyle of a criminal. Made before the worst excesses of reality TV began to bite in Europe, it nevertheless anticipates the popular fascination with the mundane, and the ongoing appetite for murder and horror, and asks very real questions about the collaboration between the media and sensation.
The film crew, indeed, collaborate with Benoit and act as accessories - being shot at themselves, confronting another film crew following another criminal. The humour of the film is a pulsing vein. This is a film to be enjoyed as a satire. This is a film to be taken very, very seriously.
Benoit airs his views on women, race, housing, the elderly. He is the narrator. He moralises about life - he is a criminal, but his crimes follow a logic and adhere to his own brand of morality. He rants like a populist politician. The crew observe. The media, it seems, can give anyone a voice and make them seem important. But, of course, the media is only feeding the curiosity and appetites of an audience. Does the media pander to public tastes ... or does it create public taste?
The criminal makes no plans. He acts spontaneously. His is a life of instant gratification, a chaotic lifestyle of self-glorification made all the more marvellous by the attentions of a film crew. Benoit poses, one moment the urbane intellectual spouting poetry and philosophy, the next brutally attacking an unsuspecting victim. He's coarse, vulgar, intolerant, arrogant, a bully, utterly self-centred ... yet the film crew elevate him to the role of star. And we watch, transfixed, wondering where the tale will take us next.
A wonderful film, beautifully assembled, which poses question after question about the art (and morality) of film making. In fact, the only question it answers is the one about naming a classic of Belgian cinema. Award winning, influential, delightful, with a very funny spoof superhero trailer as one of the DVD extras, this is a highly recommended film.