CINEMA / So unfunny, it's disgusting

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The Independent Culture
PSYCHO-KILLER - qu'est-ce que c'est? For an answer look no further than Man Bites Dog, a Belgian film which hustles us through the working day of Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde), a chatty young fellow with a DIY haircut and slightly crossed eyes. Ben enjoys a drink and a joke, keeps in touch with his family, picks up the cheque at dinner, writes poetry, plays the piano and admires the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaud. But what he likes best of all - what he can't get enough of - is murdering people. The film isn't 10 seconds old before he's garrotting a woman in a railway compartment, and we look on helplessly as her trapped-bird contortions slow to a dead halt.

Something odd, as well as something horrible, is going on here. Ben explains directly to camera how best to dispose of a corpse, and listening to his cheerful instructions you begin to wonder: why are you telling me this? In fact, he's not telling you, he's telling film-maker Remy (Remy Belvaux), cameraman Andre (Andre Bonzel) and soundman Patrick (Jean-Marc Chenut), who are engaged in making a documentary on Ben's life. Shot in inky black-and-white, the film turns on a terrifying conceit: we are privy to a serial murderer at work. Pretty useful with a handgun, Ben can also beat a postman to death and give some old dear a heart attack (he spotted her medication as soon as he entered her apartment). As he rifles the crone's savings, he encourages the crew to help themselves ('I know you're filming on a shoestring budget') and slowly the atmosphere of collusion thickens.

This fly-on-the-wall approach to Ben's dark deeds is upsetting because we are drawn into a kind of voyeuristic complicity. There is little to do but look on in startled revulsion as yet another unsuspecting passer-by gets his or hers; we feel tormented by the illusion that the film-makers, who presumably are not psychotic, could have done something to stop him. Instead, as they emerge from the shadows, Remy and his team meekly take on the role of acolytes - after all, Ben is the star, and he's also agreed to stump up the cost of the film. Their bond is finally cemented in one particularly awful sequence in which Remy holds the legs of a recalcitrant child while Ben smothers him with a pillow.

Did I mention, by the way, that Man Bites Dog is a comedy? You could be forgiven for not twigging this, since its casual record of brutality is not in the slightest bit funny. It has become a truism to lament the way cinema has thinned the value of human life and inured us to grotesque representations of death: two weeks into the new year and our sensibilities have already been mauled by Reservoir Dogs. In the face of all this blood-spattered mayhem perhaps a disgusted belly-laugh is the only way out. But in all honesty, when Ben calls for the boom mike to pick up the sickening crunch as he breaks a man's neck, there was at least one stomach in the theatre slowly beginning to turn. In these circumstances there is a danger of looking po-faced and priggish for failing to swallow what's been set in front of you - why, it's only a bracing dose of black humour. It won't bite. Better to sit through it with an air of worldly amusement and then announce just how hilarious you found the whole thing. The film has, of course, wowed them at the festivals.

The one time I did recognise a joke being made was the moment Ben and company stumble on a rival killer and a film crew following him around. This, I suspect, is the film-makers' way of confronting an audience with its reasons for seeing a violent film: Hey, they're saying, this isn't just about our interest in a stone-crazy killer, it's about your urge to watch him. Maybe they believe they are highlighting an unpleasant truth about human nature - more likely they're just giggling at their own too-cool-for-you nihilism. At any rate, this ought to have been the point at which the film ends; we've got the joke. Yet the atrocities continue to pile up remorselessly: these people don't know when to stop. Many who chance upon Man Bites Dog will wonder why they ever bothered to start.

What is this thing called grunge? Inquiries I conducted among friends during the week proved largely unhelpful. According to one of them, grunge means not having to change your underwear, a definition that sounded as plausible as any. In the world of Singles, however, grunge is the frenetic zonk rock played in Seattle nightclubs, and the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's funky ensemble comedy.

The film revolves around a bunch of young apartment dwellers and examines their different ways of dealing with romantic confusion. Cliff (Matt Dillon) is a sweet but dumb grunge rocker who fronts a band called Citizen Dick and neglects his infatuated neighbour, Janet (Bridget Fonda). They live opposite Steve (Campbell Scott), an industrious, clean-cut type who hangs out with Bailey (Jim True), the in-house agony aunt. Steve meets Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), whose won't-get-fooled- again mood doesn't stop her falling for him. Debbie (Sheila Kelly) resorts to a video dating agency in pursuit of her Mr Right, who nearly turns out to be Peter Horton from thirtysomething.

Crowe, whose first film was the wonderful John Cusack romance Say Anything, once again proves himself a dab hand at figuring out love's young dreamers. There's nothing very remarkable about this twentysomething roundelay, but it's funny, affectionate and, in an odd way, rather heartening. Bridget Fonda is especially winsome, and her scenes opposite Dillon are played with a delicious, goofy charm (he can't fathom why she adores him, and nor can we). When she decides against the breast enlargements that will win Cliff's attention, if not his heart, it transpires that it's her doctor (Bill Pullman) who needs the romantic pep-talk: 'You're a surgeon, man. Many, many babes are into that]' Crowe keeps Singles seductively light- hearted and even-tempered, flitting from one character to another, listening to what people talk about when they talk about love. Not all of the jokes work, but the film's jaunty step never falters, and its generous spirit never flags. In Seattle grunge-speak, it's rockin'.

Which is more than you can say for Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, a road movie on the long and winding side. Writer and star Peter Capaldi plays Gavin, a young man of Italian-Glaswegian stock whose attempts to make it in the London publishing world have fallen flat. A chance encounter with his uncle Salvatore (Richard Wilson) leads to an offer he can't refuse: if he arrives on time at his dad's 60th birthday party in Glasgow, Salvatore will cut him in on the family's ice-cream fortune. So Gavin takes to the high road in his manky Triumph convertible, picks up happy hitcher Yvonne (Elaine Collins) en route, and the film is (at last) off and running on a flaky picaresque that mixes It Happened One Night with Scots whimsy a la Bill Forsyth.

Director Stefan Schwarz seems to be asleep at the wheel for most of the time, and rarely manages to get his movie out of second gear. Capaldi badly misjudges his portrayal of Gavin - a moaner, a liar and a tightwad add up to a pretty unappealing combination - and his emotional turnaround once in Glasgow doesn't convince for a second. Collins makes a decent fist of the Claudette Colbert role, but you keep wondering what she sees in her oafish companion: he's certainly no Gable. Fatally, the enterprise just isn't as funny as it thinks it is - like the Triumph's clapped-out engine, Capaldi's script is much in need of a crank.

'Man Bites Dog' (18): Metro (437 0757); MGMs Tottenham Court Road (636 6148) and Chelsea (352 5096); Everyman (435 1525). 'Singles' (12): MGMs Trocadero (434 0032) and Shaftesbury Avenue (836 8861); Plaza (437 1234); Screen on Baker Street (935 2772) and elsewhere. 'Soft Top, Hard Shoulder' (15): MGMs Trocadero (434 0031), Tottenham Court Road and Fulham Road (370 6265); Camden Parkway (267 7034). All numbers are 071-.