Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do this Summer Series on the movies of 1992 was to see how cinema had or hadn’t changed in the twenty-two years I have been alive. So far, I haven’t exactly discovered something that I hadn’t heard before, but I have witnessed first hand many of the changes that the past few years have brought on our cinematic culture. It was interesting, for example to see such a personal and idiosyncratic tentpole movie as Batman Returns, and it was gratifying to find a movie like One False Move, which feels like a timely movie and a relic of the past at the same time. This week, however, the comparison between the early nineties and the early teens becomes rather obvious, as we deal with Husbands and Wives and Man Bites Dog, two movies that feature the faux-documentary aesthetic that is so prevalent today (especially in horror movies and television sitcoms), but that back when these movies were released, felt like a novelty.
Neither of these movies invented the style they are using, which many would describe as ‘mockumentary’. As a matter of fact, the technique had been around for years. This is Spinal Tap, one of the milestones of the genre, had been released eight years earlier. One could even go as far back as 1922, were certain staged scenes of Robert Flaherty’s documentary Nanook of the North could be classified as the birth of ‘mockumentary’ filmmaking. Even Woody Allen, the director of Husbands and Wives himself, had experimented with documentary aesthetics almost ten years earlier when he directed Zelig. Husbands and Wives and Man Bites Dog didn’t end up becoming the kind of gigantic hit that sparks hundreds of imitators, like what happened in 1991 when The Blair Witch Project set off a ‘boom’ of found-footage horror movies, but one can certainly feel their influence in today’s cinematic landscape.
Since I already mentioned Woody Allen, let’s talk about his movie first. When it came out, Husbands and Wives got a lot of publicity, not because of its cinematic merits or shortcomings, but because it was released in the middle of the nasty tabloid scandal that erupted when Woody Allen and actress Mia Farrow separated. After more than ten movies together, this would be the last collaboration between Allen and Farrow, one of the defining actor-director pairings of the eighties. It is probably a sign, and not a coincidence, that their last movie together would be a cinema verite-style look at marriage. After all, Allen and Farrow star in Husbands and Wives as a married couple whose life is turned upside down when they find out that their closest friends (played by Judy David and director Sydney Pollack) are getting a divorce. Allen plays a writing professor in the movie, and there are scenes in which Farrow’s character complains about the way Allen’s character portrays her in the novel he is writing. Allen’s movies had always been deeply personal, but this feels like stepping right the eye of the hurricane that was the relationship between Allen and Farrow.
I guess your reaction to Husbands and Wives will depend on how you feel about the cinema of Woody Allen, but in my opinion, it is one of the best movies of his career. I am not yet a middle-aged married person, but I have been around middle-aged married people (starting with my parents) long enough to have so, so many of the moments and developments of Husbands and Wives feel so accurate and realistic in depicting how selfish and childish people can be when they have spent so many years with a person that they love. Many of the plot points in the movie might feel familiar to those who have followed Allen’s career as a filmmaker. We have, for example, two older men (in Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack’s cases) falling in love with younger women, and two middle-aged women who are having trouble adjusting to a new life (Judy Davis) or keeping on with the one they’ve had for too long (Mia Farrow). The trick is that all these plot points take a deeper, more poignant level when they are combined, and especially when they presented in this kind of faux-realistic package.
A lot of the movie’s greatness has to be attributed to the actors, especially the two female leads, who give some really impressive performances. Judy Davis has the most comedic role of the main four, as a woman who can’t keep her overflowing emotions straight after she separates from her husband. It is, in many ways, a very similar role to the one Cate Blanchett had in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s most recent movie, and one that similarly shows a masterful balance of over-the-top emotional acting and more poignant undercurrents. Davis was deservedly nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but she ended up being one of the four nominees that famously lost to Marisa Tomei. Meanwhile, Mia Farrow’s performance is just as brilliant, and in this case, it’s precisely because of the many parallels between the movie and her own life. As a woman who is growing increasingly tired and sad within her own marriage, Farrow shows a level of heartbreaking weariness that one can only assume was very close to what she was feeling in real life.
The clearest and easiest connection to make between Husbands and Wives and today’s pop culture is the prevalence of documentary-style comedies. But, really, as great as Allen’s film is, it doesn’t feel like it was a huge influence in today’s comedic output. The much clearer forefathers to today’s comedies are Christopher Guest’s movies, and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s British television series The Office. Of the two movies I’m discussing today, it’s actually the independent black-and-white Belgian film that better resembles our contemporary comedic sensibilities. Man Bites Dog, originally titled C’est arrivé près de chez vous (literally: “it happened in your neighborhood”) was the product of filmmakers Rémy Belvaux, Andrê Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, the last of which actually stars in the movie as Ben, a psychopathic serial killer is who is being followed by a documentary crew that is making a movie of him. That very premise sounds like something you could see being made by a number of comedic actors nowadays. Back in 1992, when reality television was in its infant stages, it felt like a much more original and daring concept. It was also particularly daring, because while it is definitely a comedic film, it is also incredibly dark. Almost too dark at times. The whole idea behind the movie is that the filmmaking crew get sucked into the ruthless lifestyle of this completely despicable character, and as you might imagine, things don’t end particularly well for any of them.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no denying that Man Bites Dog is a pretty hilarious movie. It’s actually the fact that it’s comedy is so effective that the movie has such a big impact. The most interesting thing about it, is how the movie treats Ben as a character. He is not what you would call a charismatic villain. Although he is pretty watchable, it’s not because he is particularly nice to be around, but because he is such a nonsensical douchebag. To put it in relatively contemporary television terms, he is much more of a David Brent than a Michael Scott, you know, if David Brent were a murderous psychopath. Because Beni s an absolute maniac, no doubt about it. Thanks to his horrifying personality, Man Bites Dog can easily be qualified as a horror movie. His killing is not a cause of passion or illness, to him it’s just a way to earn his living, which makes him all the more despicable. At one point, in a scene that strands the line between being hilarious and horrific, he breaks into an old lady’s apartment and scares her to death jus to steal a couple of bills from under her mattress.
Man Bites Dog achieves a very tragic tone when you actually start to think at the implications of the approach the filmmakers decided to take for their narrative. It is, of course, horrific enough that Ben could be such a heartless bastard, but there is an extra level of sadness when you consider what this means for the documentary crew that follows him throughout the movie. Like I said, Ben is not a charismatic character. He is not the kind of guy who does horrible things but you can’t help but be sucked into his crazy vortex. He is an absolute asshole, and the filmmakers that are following him know this. The fact that they nonetheless slowly fall into his way of thinking is one of the scariest and most upsetting things about the movie.
There is also another level of terror to the fact that a movie like Man Bites Dog exists. As a comedy, no matter how dark it is, it is easy to both think about the similar horrors that occur every day, but be sheltered in the ridiculous premise of the movie. That’s why I think Man Bites Dog would be an excellent companion with last year’s documentary The Act of Killing, which I named among the best movies of last year, and follows a similar character to Ben, albeit a real human being, who made a living out of torturing people during the Indonesian uprising of the nineteen-sixties. Letting yourself go in the absurdity of Man Bites Dog, to later be confronted with the horrific, yet equally absurd, reality of The Act of Killing might be one of the heaviest and most fascinating cinematic experiences anyone could have.
Next Week’s Double-Feature: Howards End and Like Water for Chocolate