Hidden is an art-house thriller which focuses on Georges Laurent, an arts journalist living in Paris, whose family comes under an unexplained threat with the arrival of several videotapes. These are anonymous surveillance tapes of the exterior of the family’s apartment, an unfamiliar Paris street and the farmhouse where Georges grew up. The investigation into the meaning of the tapes evokes memories of an event from Georges’ childhood in 1961. Georges’ family had provided refuge for a boy, Majid, whose parents were killed in the massacre of Algerian pro-independence protesters by the French police. Jealous of his claim on the family’s affections and it is implied disturbed by the otherness of the Algerian boy, Georges persuades his parents to send the boy away, betraying him and ruining his future. The anonymous tapes implicitly accuse Georges, forcing him to acknowledge the repercussions of his actions. The visual style of the videos is similar to surveillance or CCTV footage with fixed cameras, long takes and no editing. The lack of explicit resolution to the question of who is behind the camera, and who is sending the videos, confounds the expectations of classic narrative and the thriller genre conforming instead to the conventions of art cinema.
Michael Haneke is one of the most admired and controversial of contemporary directors. His work can be defined as modernist – rather than postmodernist – in his political analysis of contemporary society. His influences include the European modernist auteurs Robert Bresson and Jean Luc Godard. This is apparent in Bresson’s emphasis on the materiality of the image and Godard’s concept of the film as an essay which places demands on the viewer, rather than providing the pleasures of identification. Haneke’s themes and style of film-making come from a desire to rupture the identification fostered by mainstream film – particularly Hollywood cinema; ‘My films are intended as polemical statements against the American “barrel down” cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus’ (Haneke 1992). This aim to empower the spectator lays the foundation for the dominant themes of his work, which are related to the nature of the viewing experience as well as wider social and political ideas. These include an investigation into the relationship between screen violence and spectator response, the status of images as representations of truth, and an analysis of the role class, gender and race play in constructing identity. In exploring these themes Haneke uses a distinctive film style with an emphasis on long takes and static camera, creating a slower paced cinema with the intention of allowing the audience room to evaluate ideas, rather than being rushed into a range of emotions and responses.
Hidden personifies Haneke’s concerns as a filmmaker, bringing together his repeated themes and style within a genre framework. The use – and subversion – of genre conventions is typical of Haneke’s work; Funny Games (1997) reworks the ‘family under siege’ thriller, The Time of the Wolf (2003) uses the plot of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Wood (2006) has seen in the use of the thriller genre a link to Hitchcock, pointing out the similarities of the murder in Benny’s Video (1992) to the murder of Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), while the mother/daughter relationship in The Piano Teacher (2001) evokes the similar relationship in Marnie (1964). ‘Cache [Hidden] is clearly linked to Rear Window, with “watching” replaced by “being watched”, the story now told from the view point of the spiedon’ (Wood 2006). (The use of solely diegetic sound in Hidden is also reminiscent of Rear Window, which is notable for its experimentation with soundtrack.) It is at the level of plot and motif that the comparison with Hitchcock can be made, in all other aspects, Wood argues, Haneke is the ‘anti-Hitchcock’. While Hitchcock’s oeuvre can be fundamentally defined by the use of intense identification with character, Haneke’s films deliberately disallow identification, making the audience look at the characters rather than share their perspective.
The question of who is filming the Laurent’s apartment and sending the tapes is part of the seemingly conventional set up of the thriller plot, teasing the audience with the promise that the enigma will be solved. The first tape is followed by a series of further clues; a child’s drawing of a face covered in blood, an anonymous phone caller asking for Georges, two cards with the same sinister drawing, new tapes with new locations. The new locations allow Georges and Anne to act as detectives; deciphering the street name (Avenue Lenin); and following the trail to the flat of Majid. Majid’s denial that he – or his son – is responsible for sending the tapes, despite Georges’ conviction that they have, is another convention of the thriller. The figure of the hero who nobody will believe is familiar to the audience from many entries in the genre including Rear Window and North by Northwest, the denial of truth by the villains is part of the obstacle the hero has to overcome. The difference here is that the audience does not know who to believe; there is no identification with Georges and this is coupled with the increasing realisation that nothing in the film can be accepted as real. There never is any definitive resolution to the question of who sent the tapes which terrorise Georges and his family. In this Hidden calls to mind another Hitchcock film, The Birds, in which the reason for the bird attacks is left unexplained, although various rationales are put forward by a range of characters. In Hidden there seems to be a range of possible explanations for who has sent the tapes which work within one or more of the areas of plot, symbolism and aesthetics.
In plot terms the most likely explanation is that either Majid or his son – or the two working together – made and sent the tapes as a form of revenge for the actions taken by Georges as a boy. This is certainly the rationalisation which Georges gives and it does seem a valid one given the content of the tapes: Majid and Georges’ childhood home, their current apartments, the row between the two men which was filmed in Majid’s kitchen. The argument against this would be that the revenge seems implausible after such a long time, would Majid even know that his banishment was Georges’ fault? And Majid and his son seem gentle, good people, not criminals. The illogicality in this explanation is negated though if Majid’s revenge on Georges is read symbolically, with Majid representing the colonised and Georges the coloniser. In this reading the tapes represent the colonial and post-colonial relationship between France and Algeria (and post-colonial relationships more generally). Georges’ comfortable, liberal, intellectual life masks the history of France as an oppressive regime which was guilty of torture and murder. The mise en scène of Georges’ flat and workplace represent his life as walled in, protected but also isolated by shelves of books which he may not even read – the real books at home become indistinguishable from the set dressings of the studio. Georges’ attempt to remain ‘hidden’ is what makes the surveillance videos so menacing as they show his life in plain view. In this symbolic reading Majid’s revenge is to force Georges to remember and therefore acknowledge that the crimes of the past have only been hidden – their effects remain. In Hidden the atmosphere of dread and anxiety the characters experience comes from being forced to look and to recognise culpability. A similar feeling is constructed for the spectator by the refusal to solve the enigma of the crime drama, the central character is terrorised and guilty but there is no closure to the events of the past. In an allegorical reading of the film closure would be impossible due to the continuing iniquitous relationships of the ‘post-colonial’ era.1