May 2006

Arts & Letters

Laboratory conditions

By Owen Richardson
Michael Haneke’s ‘Hidden’

Let the bad times roll. Munich-born, Paris-based director Michael Haneke gained international attention in 2001 with The Piano Teacher, that memorable exercise in emotional horror in which Isabelle Huppert was the demonic, pathetic embodiment of unbreachable repression: she laid waste to everything around her, including herself, and the movie laid waste to us, too (apart from anything else it would have to be the worst date movie since Fatal Attraction). Haneke looked as if he was due to fill the shoes of Krzysztof Kieslowski as the king of the Euro-highbrows. The award-laden Hidden consolidates that position.

It’s not entirely Haneke’s fault that people respond to his films’ unrelentingness as if it were a guarantee of merit – he isn’t nearly as much of an exhibitionist as Lars von Trier, for instance – but if you saw his 1997 home-invasion thriller Funny Games, which stole a march on the current crop of torture-porn flicks without ever putting the violence on screen, you might have wondered if he was simply a purveyor of haute-couture hairshirts. What may be his best film, 2000’s Code Unknown, was more open and less apodictically misanthropic than the others; it let you breathe, and didn’t fall into the trap of rejecting humanism by equating it with Hollywood sentimentality. But it’s starting to look as if that was a momentary aberration.

Hidden is a thriller, but it is muted and insinuating where Funny Games was single-mindedly sadistic. The film opens with a long shot of the exterior of a house in a pleasant, nondescript Paris neighbourhood. A car passes; a cyclist zooms in and out of the frame. Then we hear the voices of the house’s owners, Anne (Juliette Binoche, unglamourised to the point of unlikeability) and Georges (Daniel Auteuil, also on very strict charm rations), and we learn that a videotape has been left anonymously on their doorstep. Tapes continue to arrive and sinister drawings begin to accompany them, reuniting Georges with a figure from his childhood, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the son of workers on his parents’ farm who were murdered in the 1961 police massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris.

Haneke has studied all the masters of distance, anomie, deconstructed narrative and deferred emotion, and Bresson, Antonioni and Godard loom large in his usable past. At his least subtle he uses their filmic signatures not so much in homage – the very word suggests an esprit that isn’t in his emotional repertoire – but almost as academic citation: expressive use of sound and the sound–image relationship in the manner of Bresson; the enigmatic, unresolving closing shot à la Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962); and, alas, a scene reminiscent of the unfaked slaughter of a pig in Godard’s Weekend (1968).

None of this is to suggest he doesn’t have anything of his own to work with. Haneke is very good at the semi-subliminal tweak: once he has shown us that the opening shot is from a surveillance tape, every subsequent establishing shot leaves us in an intimately ambiguous position. The images are banal and crystal clear, but we no longer know what we are looking at. Likewise, once he has shown us that Georges is not the most forthright person in the world, everything he says thereafter rings the tiniest bit hollow. And once we have seen the bloody drawings and a headless chook, disaster threatens in every scene, however innocuous the setting. It takes a real precisionist gift to get the skin to crawl so much with so minimalist an aesthetic.

Once you’ve sampled the narrative crossword puzzle and the technical excellence of the film-making – artful direction aside, there are fine, un-starlike performances from Binoche and Auteuil, and Christian Berger’s elegant, assured cinematography – Haneke then wants to serve you up a great big plate of politics, which is where Hidden shows itself and comes to grief. From beneath the surface of this knowingly cinephile mystery emerges a rather elephantine critique of French historical amnesia and the invisibility of the Maghrebin (North African) in French society.

Georges and Anne are relatively intellectual – he presents a book-chat TV show, while she works in publishing – but neither approaches their encounter with the badly served Arabs as intellectuals, that is, as knowledgeable, articulate people whom you might expect to have a take, however wrong-headed, on racism and post-coloniality and historical guilt. (Has Georges had Houellebecq on his show?) You would, at the least, imagine them to have pretensions to informed opinion. But they may as well be suburban shopkeepers, Majid may as well be white and his parents may as well have died in a car accident: Georges and Anne simply don’t experience these Arabs as Arabs.

You could posit this as an attack on the French policy of assimilation but, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Haneke’s thumb is too much on the scales: seeking to expose white French acquiescence in the country’s atrocious past, he has simply made his characters seem out-of-it. No one in the film, neither white nor Arab, speaks the language of race politics; they are all in cast-iron denial, while all the time Haneke’s images inform against them, over their heads or behind their backs. As we watch Anne and Georges worry about their son Pierrot, late home from school, the shot is framed so that between them, in the background, the television shows us a Palestinian carrying in his arms a young boy wounded by the Israeli army, and Haneke is just about screaming, Watch the silly rich whiteys as they find out how it feels!

Earlier on in the film Georges and Anne have a dinner party, and throughout the scene the only person at the table who doesn’t speak is a black woman; all she does is nod at what her white boyfriend is saying. Race is everywhere on the screen and nowhere in the voiced consciousness of the characters. Particularly in the latter part of the film there are scenes that play falsely because they have been constructed to show how obtuse and callous Georges is. You start to feel as if the action is all taking place under laboratory conditions; not only that, but the results have been rigged. To the mood of dread Haneke adds the weight of his own censoriousness: the reason his characters are so blind is because he has put out their eyes himself.

Owen Richardson
Owen Richardson is a Melbourne-based critic.

Cover: May 2006
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