The following review continues Ronan Doyle’s Michael Haneke Director Spotlight.
It was Benny’s Video which first brought Haneke’s name to widespread critical attention, the manner in which he indicted the dangers of cinema and its inherent voyeurism singling him out as a director of promise and potential. With Funny Games, he ascended the hierarchy of European auteurs yet further, taking his concepts of film and the way in which we interact with it to new levels of metafictional depth. Most of his films have, to some degree, interacted with their own medium of presentation; Haneke is a director obsessed with inviting his audience to consider their own roles as viewers as well as the films themselves. It is no coincidence that Benny’s Video and Funny Games, the two which most directly speak to these ideas, are those which have brought him his greatest infamy; nor, its subject matter considered, was it a surprise to see Hidden join their ranks in 2005, going on to become perhaps Haneke’s most universally acclaimed work.
The camera takes in the exterior of a middle-class Parisian residence, observing it from a reserved distance. Traffic occasionally passes by, infrequently disturbing the serenity of the quiet street. A man arrives in a car, parks, and enters the home. We assume the static framing, the credits lingering over it, to simply be the establishing shot of the film; instead, we surprisingly hear voices discussing the images we see before us. We have not been watching Haneke’s Hidden, as expected, but rather a recording within Hidden. This is a surveillance tape that has been sent to the voices’ owners, Anne and Georges Laurent. They regard it with a mildly concerned curiosity, eager to know who recorded it, and why. He is the popular host of a television literary review, she a successful publisher. She suggests, with a slight sneer, that it may be the doing of one of his “fans”; he attributes it to the tasteless games of their son Pierrot’s friends. It is not long before the couple has received more tapes from this unknown stalker, and unsettling accompanying pictures crudely drawn with blood-red crayon. One of these even finds its way to Pierrot in school, causing the family to fear for their safety, and straining Anne and Georges’ marriage. Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil complement each other immensely in the central roles, the strength of both performers bringing a tangible tension to their increasingly fraught relationship as the story wears on.
It is not long before the couple has received more tapes from this unknown stalker, and unsettling accompanying pictures crudely drawn with blood-red crayon.
Hidden has been classified by many as a thriller, the central mystery enshrouding its primary plot device earning it the generic appellation which seems so ill at ease with Haneke’s style. His are certainly thrilling films in their own way, but such a label as this is nothing more than misleading when applied to Hidden (much the same as calling Time of the Wolf a disaster movie: technically true but inherently diminutive and misrepresentative). As always, Haneke’s narrative presses his characters into positions from which he can examine the intimacies of our species. When a tape arrives showing the exterior of Georges’ childhood home, a long-suppressed guilt is awoken within him as he realises a likely suspect. His return home to visit his mother gradually reveals to us the nature of the suspicions he hides from Anne; it is his secrecy, brought on by shame, that begins to drive them apart. He asks his mother if she recalls Majid, the young orphaned Algerian boy that their family was to adopt until he took an axe to a chicken. She condemns him for bringing up memories so old and painful. We learn through vivid, intense nightmare scenes that Georges’ unwillingness to share his privileged life with Majid motivated him to trick the boy into getting taken away and consigned to the life of a true orphan.
Hidden delves into latent issues of racism in French society, recalling some of the same ideas originally set out in Code Unknown. The nightmarish visions which plague Georges manifest his lingering guilt over the actions of his younger self. It is no wild abstraction to consider Georges in his entitled wealth and Majid in his impoverishment as representative incarnations of their respective countries in a wider European context, the former’s unwillingness to share the considerable resources of his wealthy parents with the considerably more needy latter reflecting the general French attitude toward Algeria and its emigrants, a concern which echoes that of Code Unknown toward Romania. Like in Code Unknown, where the police interject in an incident between a French man (whom we clearly see to be in the wrong) and a Romanian woman and take the side of their countryman over that of the foreigner, the police in Hidden take Majid—played to perfection by Maurice Bénichou—and his teenage son into custody solely on the baseless assumptions of Georges.
Hidden delves into latent issues of racism in French society, recalling some of the same ideas originally set out in Code Unknown. The nightmarish visions which plague Georges manifest his lingering guilt over the actions of his younger self.
Involving though the film’s narrative and its exploration of racial issues is, however, by far the most interesting thing about Hidden is its relationship to its medium. Like Benny’s Video and Funny Games, Hidden shows a more manipulative side to Haneke, toying with the expectations and presuppositions of his audience. In drawing our attention so deliberately to the process of observation and to the multiple layers of “reality” within this narrative in the very first scene, Haneke causes us to question everything we see thereafter. The technical characteristics of the opening shot are the same as those of many shots throughout the film; in utilising the same framing and style Haneke repeatedly challenges us to assess each scene. Is this another videotape? Hidden constantly repeats this type of shot, casting doubt over everything we see and making it almost impossible to discern Haneke’s camera from that of the stalker. The film utilises a realist aesthetic not to comment upon the reality of life, but to cause us to question reality itself. By making us pose the question “is this real?” with so many of his shots, Haneke encourages us to conclude that, of course, none of this is real; that everything we are watching is a fabrication. Moreover, Haneke’s presentation to us of Georges’ dreams are far more fascinating than they may initially seem. Not since the shots of the titular idealistic land in The Seventh Continent has he shown us something other than the objective reality of his films’ worlds (the ability of one of Funny Games’ character to manipulate his is an arguable exception). With Hidden, he again returns to the notion he first expressed in Code Unknown, albeit to a far lesser extent there: that any meaning is wasted when left within the world of the film. It is only when taken out into our own reality that it becomes truly relevant.
Perfectly structured around an engrossing, well-acted mystery drama, Hidden is Haneke’s most progressively metafictional work to date, taking us out of the story to reflect on its purpose, and to consider exactly why it is that we should engage with the ideas raised rather than simply be impartial observers to them. This is a masterful work of intelligent filmmaking, an immensely complex cinematic thesis that begs of us more than the multiplex passivity that characterises the majority of movie-goers. As functional as an engaging story as it is a demanding thought-provoking viewing experience, Hidden earns its place as one of Haneke’s most acclaimed and accomplished works.
[notification type=”star”]95/100 ~AMAZING. Hidden is a masterful work of intelligent filmmaking, an immensely complex cinematic thesis that begs of us more than the multiplex passivity that characterises the majority of movie-goers.[/notification]