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Benny's Video (1992)
Director: Michael Haneke

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Dating back to 1992, Benny's Video follows on from The Seventh Continent and precedes 71 Fragments In A Chronology Of Chance as part of what has come to be called the 'Emotional Glaciation' trilogy. It is the story of a teenager from a wealthy middleclass family who, when left alone for the weekend, invites a girl back to his parents' place and kills her with the kind of high-powered pellet gun that used to be used to slaughter animals. He then hides the body in his cupboard before telling his parents who help him to cover the whole thing up. But to merely describe the plot is to fail to do the film justice as the force of the film lies in its analysis and deconstruction of Benny's actions.

Much like 71 Fragments In A Chronology Of Chance and the recent Hidden, Benny's Video does not deal in explanations. Haneke claims in the interview included on the DVD that he has no real interest in explaining why Benny chose the particular girl he did or why he killed her, he simply shows us what happens and lets us draw our own conclusions by framing the actions in a certain context. The context in this case, is that of a video filmed by Benny of farmers pulling a pig into the middle of a yard as it screams before killing it with a pellet to the head. Benny watches and re-watches the video, pausing at the moment of death, rewinding and replaying the scene in slow motion as he takes in all of the nuances of the killing. We also know that Benny is someone with a huge fondness for violent films, when after the murder he calmly returns his videos, the shop assistant's voice betrays his genuine surprise that Benny does not take any more films out. Benny's de-sensitisation can also be seen in his room; the windows are covered with stout blackout curtains, and his only link with the outside world is a video camera pointed outside allowing him to take in the view. As if Haneke's point were not obvious enough, the killing itself is shown to us on a TV screen, demonstrating that the violence on screen is not real... it definitely isn't real for us but it doesn't seem real to Benny either, it's just another on-screen murder.

The problem with Benny's Video is that the film is 105 minutes long and this is pretty much the main idea of the film. 'Teenaged boy gets desensitised and kills someone' is not a particularly challenging idea, in fact, it has formed the basis for hundreds of hollow-skulled tabloid and reactionary attacks on pretty much every single non-mainstream art form there is. Given how pedestrian the idea is, I struggle to see why Haneke felt it could support an entire film. Also, unlike Hidden and 71 Fragments, you can sense that Haneke is fudging his "I don't explain, I only deconstruct" methodology as if you show a boy who experiences everything through the media and then kills someone, it's pretty clear that you are showing cause and effect and a description of cause and effect is what an explanation is. You don't need to wheel out Freud or folk psychology to explain an action when you're so scrupulously clear in your depiction of a relationship of cause and effect. So to the extent that Benny's Video is about the killing, I would argue that the ideas are a little thin and the methods and themes are better explored in some of Haneke's other works. Indeed, the included interview shows Haneke providing answers that are a little too glib and easy suggesting that at no point in the conception or construction of this film was he anywhere near the limits of his comfort zone. However, that does not mean that this film is devoid of interesting ideas.

The scene where Benny invites the girl back to his parents' flat is fantastically shot and positively crackles with the kind of nervous sexual tension that characterises teenage sexual liaisons. Benny invites the girl back to his place and naturally takes her to his bedroom where she sits, almost expectantly, expressing an interest in the things he shows her. Before the killing, he levels the camera at her and she smiles, he then leaves the camera on but the image on the TV in the background is of his crotch. The pellet gun even resembles a dildo suggesting that Benny can't distinguish between eros and thanatos... the urge to kill and the urge to fuck. When the pellet gun goes off, the mood is obviously broken but up until that moment there is a real sense that the encounter could have gone a very different way. Benny even acknowledges this as when he moves the body the girl's dress starts to slide upward and he gallantly pulls it back down. The time for that having passed...

Another interesting section comes when Benny and his mother take a trip to Egypt, leaving the father to 'tidy up'. Initially awkward, the scenes show Benny acting very much like a normal teenager, letting his mother in and allowing some affection to grow between them. However, the holiday in Egypt is portrayed mostly through grainy video footage, suggesting that Benny is still not completely connecting with reality. In one telling moment, he sits down in front of the camera, smiles and says "Hi Daddy!" before stepping out of the frame, as though he were trying on a new but equally false face.

Benny's Video is a film that feels stretched. It is full of soporific 'expressionistic' shots of empty rooms and landscapes that serve to give the film Haneke's trademarked coolness but the film's central idea is so slight that it struggles to fill the overly long running time. The fact that the film is so full of atmospheric shots also gives its narrative a piecemeal feeling, robbing the film's admittedly surprising conclusion of any emotional impact. Haneke is too good a filmmaker to create a true dud but, despite some lovely moments, Benny's Video is unarguably one of his weaker works.
Benny's Video

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