Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Voyeurism meets paranoia in middle-class surroundings

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Keeping up appearances is hard to do when you are being stalked.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX MOVIES

Michael Haneke's Hidden (Cache) begins, as many films do, with an exterior establishing shot. We are looking down a narrow Paris street at a nondescript house, fairly certain that cinematic convention will soon invite us inside. But there is something odd about this ordinary, even banal, image. The camera, perfectly still, lingers for an unusually long time, and we begin to suspect we may not be alone. Someone is watching with us, and perhaps even watching us as we watch. It turns out that this is not only the opening shot in a movie, but also part of a surveillance video.

Thus, before we even know what is happening, Haneke, one of the most exquisitely sadistic European filmmakers working today, has deposited his audience at the Hitchcockian junction where voyeurism intersects with paranoia. We are at once innocent and complicit, as if the idle curiosity that brings us into the theater authorized a malignant form of spying. The residents of the house, Georges and Anne Laurent, who have received the video in a bag left on their doorstep, certainly feel violated and intruded upon. Why would anyone do such a thing? What have they -- Georges and Anne, a perfectly respectable upper-middle-class professional couple -- done to deserve this?

The question turns out not to be rhetorical. The tape is followed by others, and by violent drawings made all the more disconcerting by their childishness. Variations on that enigmatic, implacable opening shot pop up again and again, intensifying the ambience of suspicion and multiplying the film's ironies and implications. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is the host of a highly rated literary talk show on public television (this is France, remember), and is therefore used to the camera's scrutiny. Anne (Juliette Binoche), who works in publishing, finds her husband's response to their invis-ible stalker annoyingly secretive and mistrustful. Their relationship starts to crack and buckle, even as they try to maintain an illusion of blithe bourgeois normalcy for their friends and their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky).

Film Notes:

Hidden (Cache)

Directed by: Michael Haneke

Starring: Daniel Auteuil (Georges), Juliette Binoche (Anne), Maurice Benichou (Majid), Lester Makedonsky (Pierrot), Annie Girardot (Georges's mother)

Running time: 121 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Language: French with Mandarin subtitles


As it happens, their domestic drama has large implications. The film's title gestures at realities that are pushed out of sight so that normal life can take its uneventful course. Normal life, that is, as it is lived by affluent, bien-pensant Western folk like the Laurents. Haneke, an Austrian who works mainly in France (and who makes excellent use of that country's rich deposit of acting talent), has established his reputation by shaming -- and shocking -- the consciences of sophisticated continental audiences. A mainstay of the Cannes Film Festival, where Hidden made its debut last spring, he has acquired considerable cultural prestige as a result of rubbing the smug faces of his characters (and, implicitly, his public) in the depravity, violence and sheer moral ugliness that lurks beneath their comfort and complacency.

Hidden can be interpreted both as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks and, in retrospect, as a prophecy of the riots that convulsed France's impoverished suburbs last fall. What is hidden, above all, from the Laurents and their ilk are the social grievances directed against them. The drawings and videotapes are a form of psychological terrorism, the roots of which lie in Georges's provincial childhood and in the events of Oct. 17, 1961, when as many as 200 Algerian protesters died at the hands of the Paris police, then commanded by the former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon.

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