Layers upon layers are necessary for Man Bites Dog. Its filmmakers follow filmmakers who follow a serial killer. There are many issues with that process. Issues that this trio of directors Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, and André Bonzel, do not get around to addressing. Nor should they. There is no real point in doing so. Man Bites Dog works without explanation, but there is no harm in giving it to us. Why a group of filmmakers would follow a psychopath like that is never explained because there is no explanation. What could be offered? Indulgence in madness. Many are guilty of it, but how far can we take such an excuse before it wavers on the unbelievable?
Man Bites Dog struggles with that unbelievability, mainly because it is inclined to keep truthful and honest. It sets itself up for a realistic portrayal of tortured minds stretching themselves to their limits. They do. But the cost of this makes little sense, however enjoyable it may be. The real draw of the narrative is how this passive documentary crew turns from fly-on-the-wall to invested in the life and terrible, diseased work of Ben (Poelvoorde). Much of Man Bites Dog plays like fantasy and not one that we as an audience can enjoy. It is the work and mindset of the directors, who wish to play up to who they want to be and why they want to do it. Poelvoorde, for instance, brings life to a disgusting character, but the active decision to make him charming and sophisticated brings with it a jarring notion.
But at least the jarring issues at hand are interesting. Poelvoorde does well to convince us of his charm, and despite the clash of ideas, there is some worth to be found in his performance. Extreme violence always lingers on the screen, and that is part of the Man Bites Dog package. By being so controversial, so out there in its intention, these filmmakers grasp at what many before them have tried and failed to do. They crush and ruin the honest intentions of filmmaking by pairing them with hyperviolence, disgraced characters and emotionless terrors. They do so with great success. Where A Serbian Film failed decades later, Man Bites Dog succeeds in similar territory. It coaxes a reaction from its audience, and that, at least, does not feel like its sole intention.
With that, Man Bites Dog sets itself up for impressionable artistic variety, rather than just a collection of scenes meant to entice hate and fear from its audience. There is a point behind it all, unlike that horrid creation, A Serbian Film. Where Poelvoorde, Belvaux and Bonzel succeed is in their creation of characters who, while completely untrustworthy and dislikeable, are at least interesting. We cannot claim to understand their thought process, but we can at least accept that their intentions are open and honest, despite how loathsome they may be. There is something about its horrors that coax an audience in, and once they are attached and latched to the minds of a viewer, there is no letting up in how enticingly disgusting it all is. Man Bites Dog is effective in that but still struggles with its narrative intentions occasionally.