A tightly plotted and paced thriller whose not-so-hidden agenda is to expose the bad conscience of the world’s haves toward its have-nots, “Hidden” is one of Austrian helmer Michael Haneke’s most watchable and pungent works. The mystery behind a series of anonymous videotapes that appear on the doorstep of a middle class Parisian family gradually turns into a metaphor about the First World’s fear of the violence it has itself created and then repressed from consciousness.
While film’s topmost level, as a pure whodunnit, may attract more business than usual for a Haneke film, auds who don’t latch on to the deeper currents here are likely to feel cheated by the deliberately open ending, which it would have been so easy to close with one culprit or another. This stubborn refusal to end like a regular mystery may cost the film at the box office, but it underlines the need to think more deeply about who the real victims are, when the final damage is tallied and body count done.
Georges (Daniel Auteuil), host of a popular TV show about books, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), who works in the publishing business, live on a quiet little street with their well-adjusted 12-year-old son Pierrot.
Nothing looks wrong with this picture, until one day a tape showing their house over a period of two hours turns up, along with a disturbing drawing of a child with blood coming out of its mouth. They are obviously under surveillance by someone, but why?
Georges seems more bothered than Anne, but they do nothing until a second tape turns up. They then contact the police, but, since there has not been an open threat, the police offer no help.
Employing classic thriller techniques to bring viewers into the story, Haneke does not use any extraneous shots as he builds suspense and an atmosphere of encroaching, unknown danger.
Soon, Georges’ inner workings begin to emerge, and he is revealed to be extremely fearful and angry about something he has long repressed. As the tapes become more personal showing the mysterious author knows Georges well, a small incident on the street brings out his aggressive side against a black youth. Strange images of a blood-splattered, dark-skinned boy pop up uninvited and haunt his dreams.
Finally a videotape leads Georges to the modest apartment of an Algerian man his own age. It is Majid, whose parents worked for Georges’ family back in 1961, at the height of French repression in Algeria. Majid convincingly denies all knowledge of the tapes, but when Pierrot doesn’t come home from school one afternoon, Georges and Anne have Majid and his teenage son arrested.
Although the mystery is far from solved, the film almost imperceptibly begins to turn the family’s personal drama in a different direction as little by little the story of who Majid is and what Georges did to him begins to come out.
The issue becomes one of responsibility: not just of France’s responsibility toward Algeria, but, more topically, of Europe and America’s responsibilities toward Iraq and the world in general. The bottom line, of course, is personal responsibility. The film’s social statement is unmistakable, yet so skilfully woven into the fabric of the story it doesn’t seem like an obnoxious add-on.
A sinister long take unveils some of the mystery surrounding Georges’ childhood home, a postcard stone farmhouse inhabited by his elderly, bedridden mother (Annie Girardot in a delightful cameo), who is still sharp as a tack and one of the film’s most positive characters. Yet it turns out that here, too, the seeds of later conflict have been planted.
Auteuil turns in a exceptionally measured performance in an ugly, distasteful role. He makes it clear how fear, along with bourgeois complacency, feeds his escalating — and completely legal — aggression against those he has wronged. His quietly ferocious “Terrorize me and my family and you’ll regret it” is a threat that opens up the meaning of the whole film.
As the more balanced wife, Binoche is a shocked witness to his emerging secrets and latent violence, though she is caught up in the atmosphere of paranoia around him. Pierrot, too, is drawn into their fears, and begins to show the first signs of confusion, suspicion and mistrust.
There is little that is reassuring in film’s ambiguous final shot of a high school letting out, echoing the opening fixed frame, long take of the family’s home.
As usual for Haneke, technical work is of high calibre throughout. D.p. Christian Berger’s clean lensing and soft lighting envelope the Laurents’ world in a pleasant but protective middle-class cocoon, aided by Emmanuel De Chauvigny and Christoph Kanter’s harmonious set design emphasizing the Laurents’ bookish background and good education. The tight pacing of Michael Hudecek and Nadine Muse’s editing keeps the story fluid and focused but very concise, commanding audience attention from start to finish.