Bernard Le Coq
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26th Jan 06
TV presenter Georges begins receiving packages containing videos of himself with his family - shot secretly from the street - accompanied by alarming drawings.
Let’s begin with a confession. Hidden (aka Cache) is not - in any traditional sense - a horror film. It’s defiantly art house, stars two of the great contemporary French actors, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, and is directed by one of the most respected filmmakers in world cinema, Michael Haneke. So why is it being reviewed on EMB? Have I decided to throw a hissy fit after being given Dracula's Curse to review? Have I turned my back on the good, the bad and the schlocky? No. The answer is quite simple; Hidden is an astonishing piece of cinema, an instant classic and the most powerful, disturbing film I’ve seen this year.
It also contains one of the most puzzling final shots in a film I've ever seen (which I’m still mulling over) and an out-of-nowhere shock moment that halted my breathing for one brief, awful moment, and sent out a collective, audible gasp from the London Film Festival audience.
At first glance Hidden seems to be a classic study in paranoia worthy of Hitchcock at his peak. Auteuil and Binoche play Georges and Anne - he is the presenter of a ‘Late Review’ style arts discussion programme, she a respected publisher. Their impeccably liberal, upper middle class idyll is shattered when they become the target of a voyeuristic terror campaign - an unknown assailant delivering VHS tapes to their house that contain footage of the outside of their apartment. So far, so Lost Highway. But what unfolds is both a gripping, complex thriller and a multi-layered, ingenious parable on that most contemporary of horrors – the fear of ‘the other’.
When Georges reports the crime to the police he is met with a dismissive response, and while Anne is initially unnerved by the experience, she presumes it to be the work of a fan of George’s show who will simply get bored. Georges however is convinced he knows who is targeting them. When the tapes start arriving wrapped in pictures – childlike scrawls of faces with their throats cut – Georges starts having nightmarish dreams and disturbing flashbacks to his childhood and a young Algerian boy called Majid that his parents briefly adopted during the French occupation of Algeria in the 60s. Firmly believing this figure from his past is now seeking to avenge Georges’ childhood indiscretions that led to Majids eventual deportation, Georges decides to take matters into his own hands, despite the evidence being almost non-existent. His actions become the catalyst for a series of unexpected and shocking events that start to destabilise his family life and threaten his career.
Mixing slow burn chills with deft political commentary woven so subtly into the narrative that it creeps up on you, Hidden avoids the kind of preachiness or condescension that normally mars attempts to tap into post-9/11/Iraq war fears about threats to home and personal security. It manages to be a far more devastating, persuasive critique of Western guilt than anything Michael Moore could dream of. David Cronenberg's History of Violence explores similar territory and it too has a family man with a comfortable existence forced to confront past indiscretions. Like Cronenberg, Haneke handles the underlying themes with great subtlety so that it’s just as easy to enjoy Hidden as a tense thriller as it is to read into it deeper, more allegorical layers of meaning.
As you would expect from a director as exacting as Haneke, Hidden is a meticulously crafted piece. Particularly impressive is his use of the old ‘film within the frame’ device, which is introduced immediately, with little fanfare and such sophistication that we the audience are never sure - until the reveal - that what is on screen is part of the action or captured on tape. This allows Haneke to explore the characters through different patinas, and adds further psychological and emotional weight to an already dense movie.
What’s all the more remarkable is that Haneke achieves all this without recourse to any kind of cinematic trickery. It’s shot in the directors chilly, formalistic style, and has a look pretty much like any other contemporary French drama, albeit one shot on Hi-definition film. There’s no creepy noises or sound effects, everything is handled in realistic, low-key fashion. But Haneke loves messing with his audience. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Austrian director’s work will know he is an agent provocateur in the truest sense. Like Danish director Lars Von Trier, Haneke is one of those respected filmmakers known to the horror fanbase, predominantly for his remarkable Funny Games. It too deals with a middle class family under threat, in this instance by a very real presence, two psychotic young men who hold them hostage in their own house. It’s a film that seethes with pure evil and has a fierce, razor-sharp intelligence. I would urge any EMB readers who haven’t seen it to do so immediately.
So ultimately I’m telling you that an Austrian art house director has made the years best, most compelling ‘horror’ film. That isn’t a horror film.
Why is this? After this year's Fright Fest I was left with a troubling thought – Wolf Creek aside none of the films I saw really disturbed me or got under my skin. I enjoyed many of them but they didn’t stay with me in the way great horror should.
I think that this is largely because no matter how good the Switchblade Romances or Cabin Fevers are (and some of them are excellent) they are ultimately nostalgia trips, created largely by horror fans for horror fans. The landmark terror works of the 70s that they try to ape had a political resonance that was far reaching and lent films like Last House on the Left, Straw Dogs and Texas Chainsaw an elemental, almost timeless power. So much modern horror seems to me to play very safe - conservative scares acting almost as a fun diversion from troubling times. Hidden is the first film I've seen this year that really connects with what’s frightening for us in the modern age. We’re living in an era defined by guilt and fear, and for me that’s much more terrifying than a whispering spooky faced child or (cough) one of the walking dead.
Hidden is not without its flaws. Haneke’s fondness for the long take means that occasionally your attention wanders when it shouldn’t. There are some narrative cheats too – particularly during a slack mid-section involving the mysterious disappearance of George and Anne’s troubled son, Pierre, that don’t quite add up.
The performances of Auteuil and Binoche are, as you would expect, outstanding. Auteuil in particular is immense, completely convincing as Georges, fleshing out a lead character that continually walks a tightrope between being sympathetic and rather unlikeable.
Ultimately Haneke has not made a traditional genre film. But for adventurous viewers, and those who crave cinema that asks questions of its audience this is one of the must-see films of 2005. Perhaps its greatest strength is one that all fans of horror can relate to - its distillation of our collective fear of an unseen, unknown threat to our personal security. This is an everyday terror, whether it’s a potentially explosive meeting with a stranger or the re-appearance of a figure from a past you would like to forget. And on a larger scale the great fear of ‘the other’; a fear that has led to some extremely big decisions being made – and still being made – by men with great power and responsibility.
As Georges pursues what he believes to be a legitimate threat - lying to his family, to himself and justifying it all as protection of the things he holds dear - we come to realise just how easily justifiable even the most appalling actions can seem when placed within a certain context, or viewed through a certain lens. Some secrets will inevitably come back to haunt us - no matter how well we try and keep them hidden.