happy birthday, robin!
what i watched last week

by request: man bites dog (rémy belvaux, andré bonzel and benoît poelvoorde, 1992)

I don’t want to say it takes me a long time to get to people’s requests, but this one was requested about 2 1/2 years ago. I watched it after signing up for the Criterion/Hulu partnership, wherein I get to watch “all” Criterion movies without ads for $7.95/month. I put “all” in quotes because I’m not sure how it works … there are movies where Criterion only offers them online (no discs), and they don’t offer every movie they have on disc. As I write this, there are more than 800 films on the list. To make up some of the cost, I’m cutting back on my Netflix, switching to two discs per month (along with streaming). I prefer Blu-rays to streaming, but as must be obvious by now, my idea of a movie to watch doesn’t often include recent ones. The Criterion offerings are much better than Netflix discs … as an example, my Netflix disc queue is only 20 movies long right now (they are better at streaming … I have 50 on my streaming queue). I think I’ll pay for the 800 rather than the 20.

Onwards to Man Bites Dog, which I had seen long ago. I remembered the basic premise, I gave it 8/10, and that’s about it, so it’s a good choice for a re-viewing. I recently read an article that said too many writers assume their readers know everything, so they don’t offer enough context. I have no idea who might read this, so it’s hard to gauge the audience. Still, I’ll assume many people have never heard of it. Man Bites Dog is a faux documentary filmed in a cinéma vérité style. It looks like a student film with a budget of $20 … I believe the actual amount of money spent, in U.S. dollars, was closer to $33,000, but it looks like $20. And as far as I can tell, it actually is something of a student film. The three men listed at the top of this post as directors also helped write it, and they play the main characters in the film.

Ah yes, the film. The concept is simple: a crew of young filmmakers follow another young man around filming him as he works. The catch is, the fellow is combination hit man/serial killer. He goes around killing people, philosophizing, offering tips on the best ways to dispose of bodies, while the cameraman, the sound guy, and the nominal director film away, never stepping in to stop him in any of his acts. (The men also use their own first names for their characters, so Benoit, the killer, talks to “Rémy”, the journalist in charge of the film.

There are a lot of layers here, and respect to the film makers for coming up with a concept that so easily lent itself to complex analysis. I’m not convinced they always go deeper on their own … they open up the layers, and leave it to us to dig in. That may be unfair, since it’s their film, they are the ones who put those layers out for us. But there is a bit of laziness involved (it might just be the problem with having no money). Once you know the basic concept, you pretty much understand the entire film, which can then be broken down in analysis. The killer won’t be redeemed, for he is unredeemable. The film makers will gradually go from passively filming his murders to helpfully participating in them to improve the movie. Lots of vile acts take place, and while Poelvoorde has some charisma that draws us in at first, he soon becomes first annoying and then repulsive. Meanwhile, we in the audience are implicated in what we see on the screen … if the film makers let the killer do his work, we by extension encourage the killer by watching the movie about his life.

Like I say, I can imagine long postmortem conversations about these things, and since the concept invites our musings, we must tip our caps to the ones who came up with the concept. I just can’t help thinking there is an even better movie to be made from this. In the meantime, I think 8/10 is about right. (Did I mention it’s also something of a comedy?) A possible double-bill companion would be Funny Games (1997) … I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen it discussed in relation to Man Bites Dog.



Mostly because of timing, but also because of its structure and quality, this was one of the films I saw that made me understand how film could be more than just entertainment. I happened to see the US cut and the actual cut, both on VHS. The difference (and memory may be flawed here) was one particularly gruesome act of violence. Without that, the whole thing seemed like comedy. With it, I feel like they flipped the camera on us. At that point (if not before, but definitely by then) you can't laugh anymore. We end up thinking about how we were laughing before. It makes for such a profound commentary, especially at the close of the Cold War when there was space to think about violence in film in such big ways.

Looking at how long my comment became, I obviously think you're right with the postmortem conversations. :)

Steven Rubio

I think the awfulest thing about "that scene" is that the film seems so real, with amateur actors playing "themselves", so when they come onto the man and woman, it's as if it is really happening to two ordinary folks. I read that the filmmakers were very concerned, and it was the actress who said not to worry.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)