June 3, 2008
"That which we seek to exclude returns to haunt us,” wrote Hanif Kureishi last year in a small book called The Word and the Bomb. His subject was the West and Islam and he was talking about autocratic Muslim regimes and the threats they will ultimately face from all that they suppress, but his supple line might easily be hijacked and put to use as a tagline for three of the last year’s most provocative films: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, George Romero’s Land of the Dead and Michael Haneke’s Caché (or, appropriately, Hidden).
In Cronenberg’s meta-thriller, that line might point towards some psychic integration between our violent and peaceful halves, split as in a dream and living separate lives (that double-identity motif is a Cronenberg obsession, from Spider to The Fly, Dead Ringers to The Dead Zone). In Romero’s zombie series, the dead usually stand for underclasses that society represses or ignores – and I wasn’t the only critic to think that Land of the Dead, with its mostly African-American dead shuffling through a ruined city, seemed like a weird anticipation of footage from Hurricane Katrina’s disaster zone. In Hidden, the Austrian Haneke finds a typically cruel and ingenious way to talk about individual and collective guilt: he besieges the guilty party with creepily anonymous video-tapes that help to dislodge buried memories. Haunted by video – how very 21st century.
Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is our 21st-century schizoid man. Hidden’s first shot seems initially to be a still of some ordinary street in contemporary Paris. Soon we learn – when a person off screen hits fast-forward – that this is secret video of the home of Georges and Anne (Juliette Binoche), which has landed on their doorstep with no explanation. We’re seeing what they see. Haneke poses a thriller-like question: who is sending these tapes and why? Then Georges receives another tape, of the farmhouse where he grew up. In either a dream or a memory, Georges’s buried self now recounts some details: four decades earlier, he betrayed an Algerian boy whom his parents were thinking of adopting and the boy, Majid, was instead sent to an orphanage. Majid’s parents had been killed during the violent police suppression of an Algerian protest in Paris in 1961 – an event that has remained a taboo topic in France. So, Georges’s individual guilt over Majid mirrors France’s guilt over Algeria and the bourgeois Parisian couple stand for all of France, somehow oblivious of the blood on its hands.
You could guess that, being Austrian, Haneke has already done plenty of wondering about where individual and historical guilt starts and stops. You could also guess that it gets him off the hook when telling the French off about their feelings over this specific incident. Everyone else gets implicated, though. Much has been made of how Haneke’s tricky use of video – What is the surveillance footage? What is the “real” movie? What, in the end, is the difference? – implicates the audience. We’re sharing the experience of viewing with the paranoid Georges; Haneke expects that we will begin to share his new perception of Arabs and Africans as potential menaces. In the murky and shadowy atmosphere of the film, Georges and Anne’s book-lined apartment even comes to seem like a concrete bunker keeping the threatening world at bay.
Georges is a media figure, Anne works in publishing. They are exactly the kinds of privileged high-culture consumers who go to Haneke films, presumably. We are meant to identify with them, not poor Majid, who now lives in a scruffy apartment on the outskirts of Paris – the kind of suburb you only hear about when unemployed youths set cars alight in the streets. Georges needs a map to find it. That this is the fourth Haneke film to feature a couple called Georges and Anne shows that the director’s interest in humans is remote and largely symbolic. Maybe that’s why the eruption of Georges’s past into his present has neither the chilly horror of similar scenes in David Lynch’s Lost Highway nor the wild comedy of dinner-party invasions in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – there simply isn’t much feeling in the deliberate flatness of Haneke’s digital video; like Haneke’s punishingly sadistic melodrama The Piano Teacher, Hidden is brilliantly made but uninvolving. What’s in it for us? In the end, maybe it’s just an issue of taste: I get more from Cronenberg’s disruptions of cinematic "truth" and viewer expectations than Haneke’s.