This murderously black sort-of-comedy about a film crew following a killer starts out playing the violence for laughs. But as the crew (played by the real director and cinematographer) move from observers to participants, the humor sours in this disturbing satire.
The film opens with our "hero" Benoit garrotting a woman on a train, then cuts to his lesson on how to properly dispose of a corpse. He talks directly to the camera, which gives the first inkling that the crew, film students making the movie with no budget (just like the real filmmakers), was there during the killing, too.
Scenes of Benoit joking with his parents and grandparents are cut with flashes of his murders, crimes he commits without passion, but as "work." He kills a postman at the beginning of the month, he explains, then goes door to door with the pension checks to find retirees he can rob and kill.
But Benoit doesn't see himself as just a murderer, but as an aesthete, a man of the world; he pontificates on art, the poor quality of Hungarian cement, and the mating habits of pigeons, along with spouting poetry and playing chamber music. Most importantly, he's a man who wants an audience, and he does have his own crass charisma (portrayed with uncanny precision by Benoit Poelvoorde). Benoit certainly thinks he deserves a movie, that he's a star, and the film crew agrees, especially when he volunteers to pay for the film stock. The serial killer as producer.
As the movie unfolds the violence loses its veneer of Reservoir Dogs cool and becomes messier, more senseless, repellent, until it devolves into Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolence, without the sheen of professional production values to protect the audience. The film crew justifies Benoit's crimes by deeming them worthy of being filmed; but by extension, the movie seems to be saying the audience is guilty too, for considering this to be entertainment, especially as it gets seriously gruesome. Watching a scene that spins out way past the edge of comfort, as Benoit and the crew violate and murder a naked couple in their kitchen, you realize that, filmed on a shoestring as it was, when they shot this in a shabby little Brussels apartment, it must have looked a lot like it was really happening. It's a disturbing, hard-to-watch scene, and leaves the viewer feeling like part of the exploitation.
If anything, the film's comment on how documentaries and reality TV manipulate misery and violence for entertainment value is even more relevant now. Man Bites Dog premiered the same year that the first Real World episodes aired, before the dozens of increasingly extreme shows that have come since. (At least 11 reality show participants have committed suicide; are the shows at all responsible for what they do to their "stars"?)
Man Bites Dog won awards at the International Critics Week at Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival, but was hugely controversial. The Tokyo Film Festival's director was fired for accepting it and the film was subsequently banned in Japan, and only heavily edited versions screened in the U.S.
Benoit Poelvoorde went on to be a star in Belgium. But Remy Belvaux, who directed, cowrote, coproduced, and played the main, most culpable crew member (also named "Remy"), never made another feature film, and committed suicide in 2006 at the age of 40. The disturbing film they left behind has more meaning today than it did when it was made, an indictment of a celebrity-obsessed culture that considers anyone in front of a camera to be a star.