A smart marriage of the thriller genre with a compendium of strong ideas about guilt, racism, recent French history and cinema itself, Michael Haneke's eighth feature is an unsettling, self-reflective masterpiece. It opens with a lingering, static shot of a bourgeois Parisian home. We watch as a woman leaves through the front door. Strangers stroll along the street. A car passes. Birdsong permeates the soundtrack. So far, so very normal; but what are we looking at -- and why?
The question is rudely answered when rows of static appear and the image blurs and then begins to fast-forward. It's an illusion: we are, in fact, watching a video that's been sent anonymously to the owners of this house, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), a wealthy, middle-class couple who are ostensibly paragons of the Parisian intelligentsia. Georges is a French version of Melvyn Bragg and hosts a literary discussion show on TV; Anne works for a high-brow publisher. Once this visual trickery is revealed, we watch as the pair agonise over this sinister intrusion into their ordered lives. Who's been filming their house? And why?
For the Laurents, it's the start of a horrific upset that mirrors the disturbing breakdown of familial comfort that characterised Haneke's Funny Games, Time of the Wolf and Benny's Video. Nor is it the first time that Haneke has confronted us with a discomfiting use of video within a film: the killers in Funny Games alter their own narrative with a remote control while the murderous kid in Benny's Video is obsessed with the medium. This time, we're immediately upset by and suspicious of Haneke's opening video-volley. Can we trust him, we wonder, as the film continues? Are we always watching the main narrative, or further video recordings? Is there even a clear difference between the two? The introduction of these recordings -- which crop up several times -- makes this a multi-layered affair. Perception is all. Interpretations are plenty.
The tapes continue to arrive at the Laurents' home, the shelves of which are full of books, videos and a large TV that sits, suggestively, centre-stage. Some tapes arrive with childish drawings that hint at violence. Haneke also introduces vague, intermittent flashbacks of a young child that are increasingly revealing. The tapes and the flashbacks, we are led to believe, are linked and Georges becomes convinced that the videos are connected to an Algerian, Majid. He locates and confronts Majid and his son (allowing, in one scene, for a particularly jolting and unexpected coup de cinma ).
All the while, Haneke crafts the fabric and routine of Georges and Anne's lives with cold precision, only to upset their habits violently at regular intervals: witness a sudden knock at the door during a civilised dinner with friends, or a whisper in the ear from Georges' producer at the end of his chat show. The effect is to plant unease and suspicion at every turn. Auteuil and Binoche support this sense of implosion with superb performances.
But who is sending these tapes? What do they mean, for Georges and us? The entire film could be read as an expression of Georges' guilt and hidden turmoil relating to his own past. The tapes are expressions of Georges' psychological state as his darkest memories are finally unearthed in middle-age. If anyone can be accused of sending the tapes, it's Georges, at least metaphorically. To interpret Hidden any more literally is to miss the point. This is largely a character study -- the study of a repressed man and the chaos caused when the valve is finally opened.
Yet, at the same time, Haneke presents this parable within the framework of a thriller. As such, he asks us to accept his film on both a literal and a metaphorical level. The logic of the genre -- the desire to ask 'who did it?' -- is a trap. It makes us complicit in Georges' wild accusations that the Algerian might be responsible for this terror. We are forced to share his accusation, one that that hints strongly at France's continuing, uneasy relationship with its immigrant population. It's here that Haneke's film leaves the personal behind and becomes a reflection on an entire society -- a society famed from the outside for its commitment to progression and ideas. Georges and Anne are, on the face of it, enlightened, educated liberals. Yet Georges and Anne look elsewhere for a scapegoat for their own, very personal problems. Georges and Anne are us.