There was a moment watching Man Bites Dog that I had an appropriate moment of deja vu (well, appropriate except that the filmmakers are Belgian, not French). When the small indy film crew following prolific serial killer/hit man Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde) admit that they’re running out of money and must stop filming, and Benoit offers to take over as producer. That nibbled at me for a few minutes until I realized where I had seen it before: the Adi Shankar/Joe Lynch unofficial Venom short, Truth in Journalism. Substitute Eddie Brock for Benoit.
Reviewing news stories about Truth in Journalism reveal that Shankar was very upfront about the Man Bites Dog influence (and that very few of these reporters had ever seen Man Bites Dog). He describes it as a “super-niche” movie, which may be true, but it shouldn’t be, because it is very, very influential.
Benoit is an efficient, ruthless killer who has disposing of bodies down to scientific ratios, and exactly which victims are likely to have money socked away, and where. “I like to start every month with a postman,” he says, as this allows him to target pensioners. The film crew following Benoit is already complicit in his numerous crimes (you will lose track of how many murders are committed in shock-cut montages), but they also start getting more involved, as when director Remy (Remy Belvaux) drags off the body of a dead watchman – Benoit doesn’t want to touch him, because the murdered man was black and he is afraid of getting AIDS.
So, yes, besides being a thief and murderer, he’s also racist and frequently cruel to what friends he does have, but is also capable of being extremely charming and playing the comic. As the cast is using their real first names, the segments with Benoit’s mother and grandparents are all quite real – they thought the boys were making a movie about Benoit, so of course they are unaware of how “little Ben” is making his way in the world.
This is a comedy, make no mistake, though it is comedy blacker than the inside of a lump of coal at the center of the earth. Possibly the best example of this is the fact that the film crew keeps losing sound men, by which I mean they keep getting killed in the course of filming, with a tearful Remy delivering the exact same eulogy and dedication of the film to each fallen audio guy – right down to the same pregnant girlfriend. Jeez, Remy, think of a new name.
But the darkness at the heart of the movie is still constant, leading up to a night of drunken carousing, when the crew actually participates in a particularly repulsive gang rape and double homicide, and all pretensions about being impartial observers and recorders go by the wayside.
The actual, real filmmakers had no idea the movie would be as well-received as it was; shot over the course of a year whenever they had the money, using family and friends, this was supposed to be a “calling card”, proof that they could actually make a feature. That in their desperation to find a hook for a movie to be made with nearly no money, they manage to pretty accurately predict reality TV (along with another excellent “super-niche” movie, Series 7), and provide a template for found footage movies yet to come – and eventually wind up in the Criterion Collection – is pretty amazing.
It’s also sadly predictable for this sort of thing that none of the filmmakers, save Benoit, has gone on to much of a career. Like Leonard Kastle and The Honeymoon Killers, lightning struck once, and we’ve all been waiting for it to strike again.