(written for MovieMail in 2006)
Someone is sending videotapes to Georges and Anne Laurent. Nothing significant happens in these tapes but they announce that their house is being watched. The tapes then take on more personal significance for Georges and are accompanied by childish drawings that seem to refer to an unpleasant episode in his past, and his actions in finding out who is sending the parcels are clouded by this past as well as his own troubled conscience.
One of the most impressive aspects of Hidden is how it marries the personal with the symbolic. Through his story of a couple and their son, and the husband’s relation with Majid, an Algerian man he knew as a 6 year-old boy, and his son, he has fashioned a story that says much about current tensions over immigration and integration at large in European society today. In some ways the concentration on surveillance in the film, and the question of just who sent the tapes are red herrings. With this stripped away, what you are left with seems to have grown from the potent 5 minute confrontation between a young Arab, Anne Laurent (again) and an older man in the metro near the end of Code Unknown. That scene also features three of the same actors – Juliette Binoche, and Maurice Bénichou and Walid Afkir, who play Majid and his son respectively in Hidden.
At the heart of the film is the fundamental question of communication. In so many of George’s exchanges, this is what is lacking. When he visits Majid to confront him about the tapes, Majid is hurt that he uses ‘vous’ with him. ‘Why do you talk like we’re strangers?’ he says. Georges threatens him, to which Majid responds that beating him ‘wouldn’t leave you any wiser about me’. Like the scene with the cyclist outside the police station, it is symbolic of how the bourgeoisie regard ‘others’ in their midst and also of the blind spot a nation’s people can develop to people who are not like them – immigrants in HLM housing for example – but who have spent decades, or even generations in the country. It’s no coincidence that Georges works in the media. It also leads to the question that if you are one of the overlooked or politely ignored, just how do you penetrate the gates, the doors and the walls of books that block your way?
There are two filmic relations to Hidden that may not be readily apparent. The first (that came to me in an uncharitable moment after the film didn’t live up to the extraordinary hype it had received) was that in some ways it was a 21st century update of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, though at least in Hidden the characters get to eat. Quite a lot in fact, as meals punctuate the film. Watching it a second time, the comparison didn’t seem so extraordinary, there is a certain element of satire in its approach to the comfortable, and rather unpleasant, central couple (the latest adoption of Haneke’s ‘Georges & Anne Laurent’ personas). After Georges has been caught lying about the visit to Majid’s flat for example, Auteuil and Binoche bicker like a comedy double-act with their little glances and facial tics. Some of the other characters are little more than caricatures too – Georges’ boss for one, the loud pseud at the book launch who drops Baudrillard’s name into a casual conversation for another. Also, the film has been labelled, rather misleadingly, a ‘whodunnit’. It resembles more the shaggy-dog story that is told by a guest at the dinner-party. Oh, and then there’s the filming of the house that takes place from ‘Rue des Iris’.
The second film it calls to mind is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which resonates with the footage from the second tape of the Laurents’ house. The wind through the hedge outside their house sounds much like the wind in the park in Blow-Up. Both are outwardly peaceful, calm scenes that conceal sinister happenings. Much like the enlarging of the photographs in Blow-Up too, we are forced into scanning the video footage and the film for clues, looking for an answer, and, in Hidden at least, missing the bigger picture.
Small details are effective. When Georges leaves Majid’s flat we see him leaving the room and shutting the door behind him. With the camera on Majid, Haneke cuts before we hear the door shutting. Allowing the camera to remain on Majid with the hollow sound that follows the shutting of the door would have confirmed his loneliness. Instead it cuts and the film preserves its – and Majid’s – inscrutability. It also sets up the replay of the scene that soon follows.
A number of scenes take place in doorways, which seems significant in a film that questions equal access and treatment in a society. The Laurents’ house has three layers of protection – gate, door and, inside the house the walls of books (that surround a tv). None are protection against past injustice or a bad conscience – though the books may muffle it for a while. It’s why the scene where Majid’s son goes into George’s workplace feels like such an edgily invigorating incursion. The doorway scenes find their match in the language used, especially between Georges and Anne, whose conversation is littered with ‘comment cela?’ and ‘et alors?’, phrases encouraging the other to tell more, reveal more, to go a little further into the explanations found behind the doors of conscience or deception.
For all the obfuscation about the film, Haneke in fact states the problem quite clearly. If recognition of equal worth between all members of a society (egalité, fraternité) is not given, and with that an equal validity to people’s stories and heritage, then in that space is born disaffection and violence.