FILM / Shoot to thrill policies: Soft Top Hard Shoulder reviewed - Man Bites Dog (18) Remy Belvaux / Andre Bonzel / Benoit Poelvoorde (Bel); Sarafina] (15) Darrell James Roodt (SA/UK/Fr/US); Singles (12) Cameron Crowe (US)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Warning: there are some scenes in Man Bites Dog - a film about a serial killer with end credits that divide the cast into 'dead on screen', 'dead in montage sequences' and 'survivors' - that you may find intolerable. The bits, for instance, when Benoit, a vicious murderer, takes to spouting chunks of terrible self-penned poetry about the sea or the little birdies. He is a cultured fellow, or so he would like us to think - a connoisseur of architecture who discourses on Gaud and offers us a semiotic analysis of the exact redness of the red brick used to build low-cost housing. He plays to the gallery, aggravatingly so, and has an admiring captive audience of three: the eager-beaver crew shooting a documentary about him.

Man Bites Dog, an ultra low- budget black-and-white film from Belgium, is a cross between the mockumentary - the spoof documentary a la This Is Spinal Tap or Bob Roberts - and that line of movies about shutterbug psychos, from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer back to Peeping Tom - men who film their own dirty deeds, and for whom there's a definite link between the camera's subtle voyeurism and the outright aggression of murder (the bossy Benoit, who's constantly grumbling about the quality of the lighting or the sound, directs the movie about himself, in spirit if not in letter).

Gradually, the three-man crew- within-the-film (the director, a cameraman and a string of disposable sound recordists, whose life- expectency is rather shorter than a Spinal Tap drummer's) becomes drawn into the killer's world. It's a short step from being on first- name terms and getting thoroughly drunk together to actively aiding and abetting some of his less appetising crimes (child murder, gang rape). And, so, in theory, is the audience - you're invited to laugh with Benoit, side with him, find him a bit of a card. The odium levelled against the film by some viewers seems to spring from this divided response - as in Reservoir Dogs or the forthcoming neo-Nazi gang movie Romper Stomper, it's disquieting to find oneself rooting for a vile killer.

Man Bites Dog has also been the toast of the film-fest circuit, and is certainly an intriguing film, at times even a comic one in its morbid way. It's also not entirely successful. Filmed over two-and-a-half years, the story has a scrappy, piecemeal feel; towards the end, a gang of criminals surfaces for no good reason, and Benoit winds up in hospital, in a dull, digressive scene. The film is wilfully absurd - it never wonders why a man who makes no effort to cover his tracks (when he loses his ID bracelet at the scene of a crime, his only concern is that it had cost 20,000 francs) takes so long to come to the attention of the police. After 90 minutes, the lack of substance looks a little thin.

We have no idea, for instance, whether Benoit is in it for the money, as he sometimes hints, or for some twisted pleasure (when he rapes a woman in front of her husband, he takes a professional pride in trying to make her come). His cosy, provincial family - played by the actor's real-life mum and dad - does nothing at all to shed light on his psyche. Benoit is a showman (so anxious is he to be immortalised on film that he insists on chipping in when the crew runs out of cash), but after a while the flashy, one-dimensional performance begins to pall.

And what of the film crew themselves? Both Bob Roberts and Spinal Tap had a fairly sharp take on their fictional documentarists and the institution they were working for. Here there's no sense of who these people are, and where they come from (not television, surely - even Carlton would baulk at transmitting it). You can only assume that they're a bunch of desperados prepared to go to any lengths to make a movie - people, in short, not a million miles from the penniless film-school graduates who dreamed up Man Bites Dog. That uncertainty dulls the moral edge, makes it seem uncomfortably like the kind of cynical, attention- grabbing exercise it pretends to deplore.

If you want unassailable ethical certitudes, Sarafina] - a South African musical that takes two hours to lead you by the nose to the insight that Apartheid is a Really Bad Thing - is for you. Sarafina is a schoolgirl caught up in the Soweto riots of the Eighties; tortured, along with many other children, by the police, she changes from a callow teenager to a political creature primed to take her place in the struggle for freedom. Whoopi Goldberg plays a teacher who primes her pupils with an alternative black version of world history (sample: what defeated Napolean? Answer: the People). The film offers a similar kindergarten view but a bigger problem springs from its stage origins: it starts out ironically contrasting the stylised, wannabe glitzy musical numbers with the gritty poverty of the townships (one scene features familiar big white letters which spell, not HOLLYWOOD, but SOWETO). But, while Sarafina comes to see through her silly girlhood dreams of stardom, Sarafina] never matures - it doesn't hesitate to lurch from a brutal murder to a jolly production number, right up to the end.

This month's Premiere magazine spotlights an intriguing lost scene from Singles: one sequence was to be filmed in black-and-white and in subtitled French. Surprise, it's not in the final picture, a Warner Brothers studio piece about a group of twentysomething friends. Campbell Scott falls for the newly bruised-in- love Kyra Sedgwick; Bridget Fonda's obsession with a dimwit rock musician (Matt Dillon) extends to contemplating breast implants; Sheila Kelly resorts to video dating; Jim True, as Scott's best buddy, compulsively collects women's phone numbers without the slightest intention of calling them.

His character is another strand of the film that appears to have been lost in the cutting room - Singles has no time at all for that kind of loner and slight misfit. It's supposed to be set in Seattle's 'grunge- rock' scene, but this is a sunny, upbeat place, where romance beckons on every corner (even Fonda's plastic surgeon is a potential lover) and whose good-looking, affluent citizens all seem to end up happily. The cast is good, and there are still shreds of unconventional stylistic ambitions (rueful monologues to camera; wry chapter headings), but the film leaves the impression of a bright, slightly anarchic project forced into a formulaic mould.

(Photograph omitted)