Benny's Video Review
Benny’s Video was initially released onto DVD in the UK as part of a boxed-set collecting Michael Haneke’s early “trilogy” of which it formed the middle entry. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and The Seventh Continent remain available only as part of that collection which begs the question: why is Benny’s Video deemed suitable for individual release whilst these others are not? Part of the answer is the cashing-in on Haneke’s first English-language movie, a remake of his own Funny Games. Furthermore, Benny’s Video is perhaps the best known and most straightforward of Haneke’s early work, i.e. the ones made before the original Funny Games attracted plenty of critical attention and paved the way for more star-driven vehicles such as Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and Hidden. It may also be worth mentioning that it has the more immediate title (and one that doesn’t require translating into any language). For whatever reason, Benny’s Video certainly sits well with the two versions of Funny Games: this is Haneke taking on screen violence and its effects, and more to point doing so in that slightly hectoring manner which has split Funny Games’ admirers and knockers.
Indeed, the first half will seem very much business as usual to those familiar with Haneke’s subsequent work. The setting is the middle-class family and our protagonist (the eponymous Benny) is a 14-year-old kid whose parents have procured for him a wealth of technological toys. Haneke views him with a cool detachment redolent of Robert Bresson’s final works The Devil, Probably and L’Argent. He may feel that this on-the-surface non-didacticism is allowing the viewer space to think and thus analyse the situations for ourselves, yet his overall clarity of vision is such that he does the very opposite: there is no room for ambiguity as Benny recreates his favourite home movie (the slaughtering of a pig at the family farm) on an unwilling, and similarly aged, young girl. Haneke provides plenty of “clues” during the film’s first hour – the desensitisation process brought about by this mass of video equipment, not to mention McDonald’s, heavy metal music and US schlock merchants Troma – but it’s always crystal clear as to where his thoughts and opinions lie. Which would perhaps be fine were it not for them being such easy targets; after all, who is able to sit through an entire Troma movie (in this case The Toxic Avenger or one of its sequels), let alone take it seriously?
In other words, Benny’s Video often plays out as film as lecture. Though not quite so overt as in Funny Games (and the interviews that Haneke gave during their respective releases) it is present nonetheless – less well realised than later on, and therefore not quite so airless either, but still a reductive method. Benny is seen as narcissistic, nihilistic, carefree, arrogant and detached; none of these particularly rare in the teenage breed, yet through the eyes of the director they all point to the violent act he commits. And so whilst Benny’s Video does without the histrionics or self-consciously dramatic dialogue that would only prove further detrimental, it can’t help but fail to engage once we become aware of where Haneke’s intentions lie. There’s no subtext, merely a text that’s immediately readable – and those aware of the director’s early work will notice as much within minutes, thus switching off, or at least idling, through the first half.
But then Benny’s Video changes tact and heads off into less clear waters. Post-murder and post-confession (the moment at which the viewer engages again; a stunningly well-realised scene) Haneke switches his attentions away from Benny and onto his parents’ reaction. Less able to promote familiar ideas from this point onwards, the film at last provokes some interesting questions. Middle-class complacency becomes as much a target as screen violence and so the latter is finally able to confront some unexpected areas. It would be unfair to include spoilers at this point, but Benny’s Video does offer up some genuine narrative surprises, raising issues of guilt and denial that we perhaps not have come to expect from the preceding hour. As with Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing we discover that the aftermath of a gruelling murder can be just as shocking in its own way.
And so we’re faced with the question as to whether the second half of Benny’s Video justifies the first. It would be naïve to suggest that Haneke had planned it this way all along: luring the audience into a false sense of complacent security as he goes through the motions only to stun us towards the end. But then the second half of the film does justify sitting through the first. Never to the extent that it can paper over the flaws, though we can see, in embryonic form, some of the promise Haneke would occasionally come good on. However, it should also be noted that Benny’s Video also sits far better within the original trilogy making this standalone disc somewhat redundant – those who are likely to take the most away from it are going to be those wishing to investigate the director’s early work and so under these circumstances the boxed-set is the only way to go.
As both Noel and Mike have pointed out in previous reviews of Region 2 versions of the Haneke trilogy, the presentation here is mostly fine. The steely look of the film is accurately retained and only the final reel is affected by any overt problems, in this case excessive grain. Technical issues are otherwise few and far between, moderate edge enhancement and artefacting making themselves known on occasion. All other aspects are present correct: anamorphic enhancement (at a ratio of 1.78:1), optional English subtitles and the original German soundtrack (DD2.0) whose own presentation matches that of the image.
Excepting the obligatory trailer, the only special feature of note is a 21-minute with Haneke. Given my misgivings with the film itself, I’m not always convinced by his statements, but he proves intelligent nonetheless whilst the questions posed always provoke interesting answers. Indeed, anyone seeking sufficient background information on Benny’s Video should come away ably satisfied. As with the main feature optional English subtitles are available given that the interview has been conducted in French.