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March 09, 2006

Absolute Juliette: Hidden (Caché) - Michael Haneke

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Hidden (Caché)
Directed by Michael Haneke
certificate 15, 2005

Michael Haneke's film Hidden (or Caché) is still running at various cinemas, and for weeks now, I have been seized around the wrist by some member of the chattering classes at parties and told that it is a masterpiece which "demands" to be seen, if only because of the general state of juvenile idiocy to which Hollywood has dwindled these days. Intrigued by the fierce enthusiasm it seemed to be generating among cultured people, I went.

No doubt the reader now feels that a slating is in the offing, but instead I want to draw attention to a number of aspects to the film which struck me at first viewing as not quite right, and still continue to annoy me whenever I think about it.

Firstly, the positioning of the video cameras. As those who have not yet seen the film, but have read the reviews, will be aware, a successful middle class couple (Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) are sent video tapes which clearly show they are under surveillance, and the result, as can be imagined, is that they slowly go off the rails.

The first tape is taken from a side road opposite their house. Judging from the camera's point of view, it can only have been placed somewhere above a row of parked cars. This would suggest either that it is sitting on a tripod on top of a car, or suspended from some complex boom arrangement jutting from the side of a house. Either way it would be very visible.

Leading on from this point, when Auteuil first sees that tape of the outside of his house, why does he not walk outside and look for the camera? This surely would be the immediate response of anyone who received a tape like this. But he does not. He is seen in a later tape walking past the camera without glancing at it once, which suggests a very incurious nature. If there were a video camera on top of a car watching my house, I think I might take a great interest in it. And, at the very least, wait and see who came to collect it, and change the tape.

After one of the tapes leads him to the flat of an Arab man and his teenage son, we are shown a tape of the Arab cutting his own throat and dying in front of Auteuil. Again it prompts the viewer to figure out where the video camera was, and the only possible place is bang in the middle of the kitchen floor. It is just possible it was concealed behind a two-way mirror, but it doesn't look like it.

So, again, why does Auteuil not acknowledge its presence?

Incidentally, the Arab cuts his throat with a spectacular spray of arterial blood across the walls, and drops dead immediately. A doctor friend of mine confirmed that it takes a horribly long time to "bleed out" before dying.

This particular tape however confirms that the tapes can only have been made by the Arab's son, and so I cannot understand why all reviewers and most people who have seen the film persist in describing the whole film as an unresolved mystery.

And finally, the reason why the Arab is harassing Auteuil goes back to their childhood together, when they were raised on a farm. The Arab's parents were killed in a peaceful protest in Paris, thanks to one of Maurice Papon's many murky crimes. It seems he "allowed" the police a free hand in dealing with the Arab protesters. Some 200 (accounts vary) were discovered floating in the Seine, their hands tied behind them.

Auteuil's parents were going to adopt the young Arab boy, but Auteuil connived to have him taken away.

At this point most bien-pensent liberals nod sagely and talk about France's racist past, and the sins of the fathers coming home to roost. But I don't know a single legal system, nor any notion of justice which could be called human, which holds a six-year-old boy responsible for his actions. Nor any retribution for them as just.

When I put some of these points to a friend of mine whose opinion I value, he thought that I was taking too realistic a line on the film. After all Kafka, with whom he thought the film-maker shared many characteristics, does not stand up to such realistic scrutiny.

Now I dislike using terms like "realism" and "realistic", because they are slippery. But I hope that most people could broadly agree that whereas Kafka is not a realistic writer, Haneke is a realistic film-maker. His films use a style which while obviously not documentary, still rely on the sort of cinematic language which can be broadly termed realistic. And I don't want to get any further mired in that debate, which is the sort of thing which keeps academics in life-long careers. Suffice to say, I think the film is sufficiently realistic to allow us to ask the above questions, and then for the film to be found wanting when the answers just don't add up.

Many people told me to watch the very last shot of the film carefully, for a "clue". I did that, and I think I got it. (Those who have not seen the film look away now). The Arab boy meets and greets Auteuil's son like an old friend. I am normally a slow coach when it comes to working out whodunnit, but even I had already realised that this was the only possible explanation for the whole conspiracy, and so that final shot didn't add anything to film.

Another dinner party guest proclaimed:

Ah, but it pointed the way to a more optimistic future for the French, in which Frenchman shall speak unto Arab, and all will be harmony.
Perhaps, but only after they have connived at a sick joke which mentally tortures their parents and drives them to break-down. Some future.

Incidentally, round where I live, a "Juliette" is a film which is a load of old nonsense. "Juliette Binoche" = "tosh".

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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This review is both smug and clueless, which is a very bad combination. Plus it's written in the voice of a whiney, know-it-all teenager (who knows much less than he thinks he knows).

Did Peachment pay any attention as he was watching? Georges does look for the camera in the beginning, and he and Anne discuss the paradox of why they can't find it, when from the videos it would appear to be so conspicuous. In fact, this discussion is one of the earlier exchanges in the film, so Peachment has no excuse for his mind wandering.

If he thinks that the only place for the camera in Majid's flat is "bang in the middle of the kitchen floor," placed there by Majid's son, he is suffering from a massive failure of imagination. I can think of three other plausible explanations off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are many more.

Similarly, I am of the opinion that it probably was Pierrot and Majid's son in collusion, but there are reasons to think otherwise, and it's hardly crystal clear.

The single good observation in this "review" is about young boys not being held responsible for crimes, but the smarmy way he expresses this observation distracts from his point, and anyhow the movie is about guilt, not legal responsibility. People surely feel guilty for horrible, horrible things they did as children. In fact, that sense of guilt is often exaggerated. So, once again, Mr. Peachment completely loses the plot.

This movie (and life) is hardly as simplistic as the snide Mr. Peachment seems to believe. Get a clue.

Posted by: Solomon Grundy at March 9, 2006 02:45 PM
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