For its first half, Michael Haneke’s Hidden (aka Caché) feels like the year’s best film, delivering gripping tension and mystery while simultaneously, and craftily, exploring the allure (and ramifications) of cinematic voyeurism. Commencing with an extended static shot of an apartment complex that soon reveals itself to be a VCR videotape image, Haneke’s latest critique of the European bourgeoisie (for which he won the Best Director prize at Cannes) involves a well-to-do family – Georges (a magnificently tortured Daniel Auteuil), the host of a literary TV talk show; Anne (the equally excellent Juliette Binoche), a book editor; and their 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) – who begin receiving anonymous, stalker-esque videos of their home accompanied by child-like drawings of throat-slashed people and chickens. With haunting camera set-ups designed to make us question whether someone (an enigmatic spectator? Or simply us?) is secretly watching the action, and with a deliberate pace that creates terrifying unease amidst the seemingly stable environs, Haneke forces us – especially in a shocking climactic act of violence – to look beyond the superficially serene surface of his family portrait to see the shameful cowardliness underneath. At the same time, he also compels us to re-consider what the act of looking (or, more specifically, not looking) says about our penchant for non-confrontational, comforting blindness.
The identity of the videotapes’ author, it ultimately turns out, is far less important than the psychological turmoil wrought by the recordings, yet as Haneke slowly begins to reveal his film’s politically charged motives, Hidden disappointingly devolves into obviousness. Georges is eventually led to believe that an Algerian man named Majid (Maurice Bénichou) – who, as a parentless kid, was cruelly abandoned by a racist Georges and his callous parents – is now using the tapes as a means of revenge, and sets about intimidating him with threats of violence. What results is a dynamic in which privileged Georges comes to represent imperialist First World nastiness and Majid symbolically stands in for oppressed Third World victimhood, a situation that ostensibly refers to France’s relationship with Algeria. However, as confirmed by an ungainly scene in which Georges and Anne selfishly panic over their missing son while, in the background, TV news footage of First World aggressive actions in Iraq and the Middle East goes wholly unnoticed, such political undercurrents also relate to current tensions between the West and Islam. Georges’ repeated use of the term “terror” is emblematic of Hidden’s pedantic inelegance, but the primary shortcoming of Haneke’s technically accomplished, thinly veiled parable is that, like the final shot’s covert presentation of information, the early sequences’ chilling suspense winds up getting hidden amidst its crowded, clumsy allegorical concerns.
(2005 New York Film Festival)