In the 1990s, we had problems with reality that anticipated the reality television to come. By the end of the decade, the kerfuffle was about real sex in such films as The Idiots and Romance, but in the early Nineties, it was the heightened depiction of violence in Reservoir Dogs, One False Move and Bad Lieutenant that concerned censors and moral guardians. A Belgian entry in this cycle of films, Man Bites Dog made life doubly difficult for itself and any onlookers by presenting its rapes, murders and beatings as part of a mock-documentary, the cinema vérité trappings (wobbly camerawork, grainy film stock, variable light sources) suggesting the film's entirely fictional action had somehow been captured on the fly. Its subject is Benoît (Benoît Poelvoorde), a charming bozo matter-of-factly revealed to be a serial killer. Scenes in restaurants and art galleries or around the piano (with Benoît's girlfriend accompanying him on a flute later put to no good use) portray the "hero" not as a low-life like Henry, focal point of John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but a high-minded sort, dismissive of anyone he feels is beneath him; he segues from crude rants about race into fairly sophisticated diatribes on modern urban development, and proves fond of reciting poetry at soon-to-be-crime-scenes.
The key relationship in the film isn't that between the killer and the camera, but that between Benoît and the camera crew, whom he deploys as a means of getting into his victims' apartments, and rewards with the financial spoils of his dirty deeds ("I know you're working on a shoestring budget"). Soon he has them scurrying around at his beck and call, but an even greater problem emerges when he starts treating them as human shields (like the drummers in Spinal Tap, the crew's sound recordists prove eminently disposable) and they come to cross the line between observers and participants. Benoît doesn't kill for kicks, rather for the money he uses to support his swanky lifestyle, which suggests the mortal sin being put under the lens here isn't wrath but greed; it's one of those early Nineties films that came out of the 1980s, making it the closest the cinema got to an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho before Mary Harron came along. Crucially, it's keen to implicate the film crew (and thus, perhaps, the viewer) in the killer's crimes: the director (Rémy Belvaux) reveals one of the reasons he's kept shooting, even when a more ethical filmmaker might turn away from or against his subject, is out of a fear "we'll never have enough". (The viewer is invited to add the word "footage" or "money".)
The black-and-white arguably mutes some of its effect - most of Benoît's attacks take place in the shadows, and any bloodshed is somehow less vivid than the exsanguination of Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs - and there are blips in its internal logic. There's no particular reason for the crew to leave their cameras running when they're out drinking and dining with Benoît, save to record yet more instances of the killer being beastly to waiters and bar staff, and you can't help thinking this crew would have had to be really dumb to shoot footage that proves they were accessories to murder. (This may, of course, be the point, but a later, much less successful British film in this vein, The Last Horror Show, had the better idea of getting a serial killer to tape his own crimes.) The absurdist humour the Belgians have staked out as their own - Poelvoorde went on to direct 1999's monochrome comedy Les Convoyeurs Attendent - sometimes deflects from just how savage Man Bites Dog is, and there's an unresolvable structural problem, in that it relies upon the moral viewer to become less and less engaged with its murderous banality through its final hour; it doesn't, finally, have the to-the-last-frame intensity of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That said, it remains a genuinely knotty, provocative work, shot through with a cool intelligence, and offering a far more sophisticated analysis of violence in and of the media than its detractors at the time were willing to admit. One fears that Endemol - producers of Big Brother, and themselves a creation of the Low Countries - could have this on a loop in the foyer of its corporate HQ, and still probably fail to get the point.
Man Bites Dog is available on DVD through Palisades Tartan.