For years there was only a single Belgian film that I believed was worth watching. Before the 00s I had a pretty horrible relationship with Belgian cinema as a whole, Man Bites Dog [C'est Arrivé Près De Chez Vous] was the infamous exception to the rule. A dirty, gritty and ink black faux documentary, razor sharp and madly funny, but also a film that divided audiences and was possibly disastrous for your image when recommended to the wrong kind of people.
Long before The Blair Witch Project shocked the world with its faux documentary/found footage style, first-timer Rémy Belvaux took the world by surprise with Man Bites Dog. This little low-budget Belgian film conquered the world (and even made it on the Criterion label) and for a long time it was pretty much the only Belgian film that international genre film fans knew about (not counting underground Z-cinema like Rabid Grannies).
Man Bites Dog effectively set the bar for black comedies everywhere. Even now very few of them manage to come close to the mean-spirited humor that stems from Belvaux's first and only film. The setup is pretty simple though. A camera crew is shooting a documentary about a serial killer (Ben), following him around and trying to figure out what goes on in the man's head.
Ben isn't just your average serial killer. He has a good set of ideals and a solid, down-to-earth philosophy that make him different from the others. He considers killing people his job, just another way to earn an honest buck. His immediate surroundings know about Ben's "work" and they pretty much accept Ben's choices. Things start getting sour when the camera crew loses its objectiveness and Remy and his crew start helping out Ben with the killings.
Visually Belvaux relies on gritty (and extremely grainy) black and white photography to give the film an even darker edge. Man Bites Dog is not a particularly pretty film but from time to time you'll come across a shot that looks a bit more polished than you'd expect to find in a regular documentary. Belvaux finds a good balance between realism and style though, never letting either of two dominate the film.
There isn't much in the way of a real soundtrack. Apart from ambient sounds and the odd song (sung by Ben himself) there isn't any additional musical support. You'll never really miss it though, as Ben is talking through most of the film anyway. There are a few sound distortions, giving the darker scenes a little extra push, but that's all there is.
Belvaux's biggest asset is Benoît Poelvoorde. Poelvoorde even received writing and additional directing credits for his work here and if there is one film in my list of favorites that relies so much on the effort of its primary actor, it must be this one. Poelvoorde is captivating and entrancing, genuinely funny and endearing, but also stark raving mad and a danger for everyone surrounding him. His rants are hilarious, his logic sound and his killings efficient. By far one of the most immersive and dazzling roles ever caught on camera.
While the first half of the film is mostly laughs, the second part turns darker by the minute, while the laughter becomes ever more grim. It's a pretty traditional setup that works well enough, even though it means there aren't too many surprises packed in the second part of the film. Still, there is plenty of material that even today would be deemed shocking, so if you're not into a-political comedy or in your face brutality this might not be a film for you, and you should probably leave it for what it is.
Man Bites Dog is a landmark film for Belgian cinema. It's one of the first (if not the first) Belgian genre film that went on to become a critical international success. Twenty years later the film has lost little of its initial shine. It's still wildly funny, surprisingly off-center and grimly amusing. It might be a little difficult film to blindly recommend to others, but if you're into black comedy, make it your top priority.