Director: Michael Haneke
By Roderick Heath
When The London Times newspaper named Michael Haneke’s Hidden the greatest film of the decade, I knew I’d have to finally watch it, but also doubted I’d agree with the assessment. Haneke’s undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, and I admired his taciturn adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (2001) very much. Yet his original work tends to attract a kind of cognoscenti consensus about which I can’t help but be cynical. Modern European art cinema prides itself on maintaining certain distinctions from Hollywood and genre film, and Haneke himself helped define that distance with his would-be Brechtian, yet wrongheaded satire-cum-appropriation of slasher films, Funny Games (1997). Still, Haneke has developed a consistent nerve for dissecting the psyche of the Western Europe’s educated, middle-class-and-above populace, and subjecting them to random tortures to test their mettle, looking for perverse sexuality behind the chic façade of classical musicians or subjecting the bourgeoisie to post-apocalyptic wastelands and home-invading psychokillers who know the plot already.
Hidden, for its part, resembles a more metaphorical, pseudo-politicised edition of Oldboy (2003). Successful television book show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his publisher wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin to receive mysterious videotapes that at first, merely show their own house and then drop hints to follow a certain route to a mysterious doorway. The pictures that come with the tapes, childish scrawls of a boy with a bloodied mouth, evoke a memory for Georges that needles him. His family, which owned a large estate, had once nearly adopted Majid, the son of their Algerian caretakers who had been killed in the infamous October 17, 1961 police riot against protestors of the Algerian War. The six-year-old Georges conspired against Majid, tricking him into killing a chicken to prove his violent nature and eventually seeing him hauled away to an orphanage. Following the clues in the videotapes, Georges finds himself in Majid’s apartment, where the latter man appears to be a frayed, poor, wash-up. Georges automatically assumes he’s responsible for making and sending the tapes, and threatens him; later a new tape turns up showing this argument in Majid’s apartment.
When Georges and Anne’s 13-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) doesn’t come home one night, they assume he’s been kidnapped by their ambiguous persecutors, and have the police round up Majid and his grown son (Walid Afkir). But it soon proves that Pierrot was merely hanging out with a friend, and the hysterical act of rounding up Majid and his son proves to be the last straw: Majid next invites Georges around to witness the spectacle of Majid cutting his own throat. His son confronts Georges the next day. Georges refuses any complicity in Majid’s life and death and accuses the younger man of being the cameraman, while Majid’s son prods Georges for expressions of guilt whilst denying being the clandestine pest. In a cryptic final scene, Pierrot chats with Majid’s son outside his school, with Haneke relying on the audience to imagine a motivation and possible outcome of the encounter.
Hidden tiptoes with mischievous purpose, leaving everything upended in its wake, exposing the bullshit behind the lives of the superficially successful Laurents, with their dishonest exchanges, possible affairs, and finally confirmed moral cowardice. Communication is a major fixation of the film: the videotapes and drawings speak in the most undeclared, evocative terms to Georges, who responds with hyped-up refusals to engage or delve deeper than his own assumptions. The Laurents’ townhouse, with grilled gate and barred windows, is a modern urban fortress, displaying the ingrained paranoia and elegantly rationalised determination to keep the unpleasant aspects of the world out. Georges’ show is the ultimate cake-and-eat-too gig for the contemporary pseudo-intellectual, and the film merely records the distance between his fancy address and life of interviewing high-flying novelists and and Majid’s low-rent flat, concisely recording determinist observations about the nature of class and race.
The essential pitch isn’t a terribly great distance away from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), which likewise skewered bourgeois smugness and prodded the conscience of the complacent modern human with shadowy socio-political overtones through an anonymous campaign threatening to expose secreted skeletons. Where Clouzot’s film described an author of poison pen letters who actively sought to accuse and mixed truth and lies to upset the landscape, the implications of the videotapes and the drawings are quite different. The devices in Hidden imply unacknowledged wrongs and evoke long-ago violence, essentially operating more as a mix of detective story and laboratory maze for the mouse that is Georges, testing his psychological reflexes and leading him to a certain conclusion all logic dictates he cannot avoid. Early in the film, at a dinner party the Laurents give for some friends, one of them tells an eerie story that ends in a joke that reveals how easy it is to construct a mood of nervous credulity; likewise, a momentary discrepancy in the usual run of Georges and Anne’s lives and Georges’ assumption of persecution sees him write himself a script for a paranoid thriller.
The basics of Clouzot’s template, indeed, have become endemic in contemporary French cinema, which is full of spoilt bourgeoisie getting it in the neck from some direction. A major problem of Hidden is that it relentlessly interrogates some already well-interrogated truths: the moral smugness and hermetic outlook of its chattering classes is a popular target. What is interesting and original about Haneke’s take is the way it describes the unconscious processes of marginalisation that corrode the middle-class hegemony’s attempts to be fair in describing its fear of losing its stability. Haneke carefully removes all elements of actual danger from the experiences the Laurents are subjected to, only the mysterious illustrations even hinting at some kind of violence, yet inviting interpretation according to half-realised anxieties and prejudices. Even the final shot plays a delicate game with the audience’s psyche, asking both those who perceive hope in it if they’re naïve, and those who see waiting danger if they’re not, deep down, still afraid the young brown man will inevitably bring danger rather than understanding to the young white man. It’s also amusing that the key plot element—the videotaping—inverts the nature of contemporary surveillance culture, which is defined by keeping an eye on the rough elements out there on the streets, by instead observing the bourgeois home. This inversion suggests its part in the construction of social divides and firm rest upon exploitation of other people.
Haneke’s penchant for playing with generic elements and conventions to explore problems of cognisance and conscience makes him seem like the Teutonic offspring of Hitchcock and Antonioni, and if nothing else, he’s a master of slow-burn pay-offs. Majid’s suicide, executed in one dramatic slash of his throat with a razor before Georges’ amazed, distraught, utterly edified gaze, is a supreme example of his keen sense of how to shoot eruptions of horror for maximum effect. And yet it has curiously little impact in real dramatic terms, because Haneke defines Majid so distantly that his tale is hard to perceive; Majid never entirely ceases to be a mere prop designed to set Georges’ world in turmoil. Hidden is executed with piss-elegant directorial poise, perhaps too piss-elegant, compared to, say, Claire Denis’ intimate portrait of immigrant lives in 35 Shots of Rum (2009), which raises a troubling suggestion that perhaps Haneke’s take is as short-sighted and spuriously analytical as the sensibility he’s putting down. There’s a contrived ambience to scenes like that in which Georges has an angry exchange with a black cyclist to encapsulate the racial themes lurking within the film’s deadpan, depopulated intent, and some fuzzy hints of parable between one case of lingering ghosts of colonial misadventure and more contemporary editions, by making sure we glimpse scenes of conflict in Israel and Iraq on the Laurents’ television.
Hidden is, then, a double-edged experience. It’s both an absorbing and compellingly articulated movie, supremely well-acted, especially by Auteuil, who, let’s face it, could give a great performance six feet underwater with a pillowcase over his head. Haneke is, finally, no poet of cinema or of people, but a filmmaker and thinker of clockwork sensibilities. Hitchcock could have conjured such a narrative with a depth of emotion far beyond Haneke’s capacity, and there’s a human drama screaming to escape from Hidden’s passive-aggression chic that Haneke suggests only in a late scene—a flashback to Georges’ country home when Majid was unwillingly dragged away by anonymous officials. In such moments, Hidden suggests a tragedy that remains stillborn—which is not to say that it’s bad or anything close to it. But it does manage to both dissemble and be didactic all at once, and that’s why for me, Hidden falls many rungs short of greatness. But Haneke does conjure a lingering sense of unease much like that which dogs Georges right until his final laying down to sleep, assailed by nightmares of a lingering threat emerging from a scarce-remembered past.