Benoît Poelvoorde, by his own admission, was born with what Flemings would call ne karakterkop. While not exactly a pretty boy born to take the romantic lead, his is still a memorable face – there’s no denying the camera loves him. Combined with acting chops and a daring funny streak, this was exactly what French comedy directors were in the market for in the nineties. All they needed was a little push, a flash of light to bring a young Poelvoorde to their attention.
That flash was 1992’s C’est arrivé près de vous, his graduation project known as Man Bites Dog in the English-speaking world. A violent mockumentary co-directed by Poelvoorde and school buddies André Bonzel and Rémy Belvaux, the extremely low-budget feature became a cult phenomenon, taking home two awards at Cannes. In it, Poelvoorde gives life to maniacal serial killer ‘Ben’ who goes around murdering random people and stealing their cash on camera, almost giddy with the fact that he gets to explain his formula for the ‘ballast ratio’ of dead bodies to an audience (midgets have denser bones than children so you have to double the weight). Controversy and praise went hand in hand at the time of release and today Man Bites Dog is often hailed as a pioneering parody of exploitative reality television before that was even a real thing.
Roles in the ensemble comedy Le Randonneurs (Hikers, 1997) and in Podium (2004) as a glitter-clad impersonator of French idol Claude François marked Benoît Poelvoorde as the go-to French-speaking actor for the portrayal of misguided losers. In 2004 Quentin Tarantino, a predictable fan of Man Bites Dog, invited Poelvoorde to take a seat on his Cannes jury. Four years later Poelvoorde doubled down on his legacy of physical tomfoolery while playing Caesar’s overconfident son Brutus in the massively expensive blockbuster Astérix au Jeux Olympiques (Asterix at the Olympics).
A significant departure from his parade of offbeat schmucks was the actor’s turn as Audrey Tautou’s earnest sugar daddy in 2009’s Coco avant Chanel. The well-received period piece zoomed in on Coco Chanel’s life before there was Chanel. Instead there were performances as a singer in dimly lit French taverns and rich gentlemen such as Etienne Balsan (Poelvoorde) to whisk her away to chateaus just outside of Paris. Poelvoorde, it is agreed, does splendidly in the role of lover/sponser who becomes frostier as the film progresses and he witnesses Coco’s blooming infatuation with another man. He would deliver similarly subdued performances in Les émotifs anonymes (2010) and Trois coeurs (2014) after that.
A herculean return to comic form came last year with Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament) in a role tailor-made for Poelvoorde. Cult director Jaco van Dormael’s allegorical comedy casts the actor in the role of God, who happens to be a grade-A asshole living in Brussels. Van Dormael’s deity spends his time tormenting his subjects not just by creating floods and plummeting planes but thinking up new laws of nature: a sandwich with jam must always fall with the jam side down, for example. When daughter Ea has finally had enough of her booze-swilling almighty father, she sets out to find her own apostles and create a New Testament like her brother did before her. Floundering through the streets of Brussels in search of his rebellious offspring, wearing a checkered bathrobe and a dirty grey shirt, Poelvoorde visibly relishes the madcap role dreamed up by Belgium’s most inventive director.