In a darkened auditorium, the nervous sighs and coughs of an audience are easily amplified by a sheer, icy wall of silence emanating from the screen.
Director Michel Haneke knows this only too well. Indeed, the opening four or five minutes of Hidden serve as the very antithesis to any sense of security whatsoever. More challenged than lulled, the audience senses the distant but thunderous approach of an impending and certain horror from the outset.
A bo-bo (bourgeois-bohemian, a term star Daniel Auteuil’s character applies to his social standing) family, dwelling in one of the more respectable arrondissements of central Paris, are tormented and terrorised from afar, through the delivery of videotapes containing images from their everyday lives . Who is filming their home and why? What do the increasingly violent notes which accompany these disturbing yet ostensibly mundane tapes signify?
As the film progresses, we glimpse beyond the veneer of a family Haneke apparently refuses to judge. The film plays its cards close to its chest, clipped conversations between the two leads, Georges (Auteuil) and wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) initially reveal little beyond an understandable mutual concern for the security of their family, completed by 12 year old son Pierrot. However, as more tapes arrive, Georges begins to delve into his long-forgotten past, proving alarming memories cannot remain hidden forever; no matter how convincing the covering faade of success and fame appears.
With its roots in the conflicts of La Nuit Noire, the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerians, called upon to demonstrate against oppresive French rule in their homeland, were beaten and killed by the Police, the film offers a parable: North Africans may have peacefully protested in the past, and paid the price under the bridges of the Seine, but how long will their sons and daughters be prepared to wait for an equality which they still strive for more than forty years on? As the Renaults and Citroens of suburban France blazed this year how many young men and women of the French banlieues, armed with petrol cans, lighters and a burning sense of injustice, held the image of La Nuit Noire vividly in their thoughts?
It is this double-furrowed field of fear which is ploughed continuously throughout. At each turn is expected the now clichd twist, the base shock induced by a rock thrown through a window, a car crash … gunshots.
When the films’ one defining moment of true horror does come it is savage, unexpected and entirely appropriate. Again Haneke seems to question his audience; what is more shocking, to endure one gruesome moment or to live forever in perpetual terror of that moment?
As Georges careers further into his past, he is confronted by the demons of his childhood. Long buried beneath his consequent successes and fame, his ideal marriage, his talented son, Georges has allowed himself to forget, to hide what harms. In visiting his mother he is encouraged by her painful recollections to abandon this past, to dwell upon happier times. However, the tapes force Georges to consider himself, warts-and-all. No longer can the editing process he employs so often in his job be applied to his memory. Real life is unscripted, stark and often painful.
The themes shift from a socio-comment regarding the power of film – CCTV, television, cinema, everywhere lie lenses – to a denouement of western political values – the impoverished areas Georges visits in his hunt for the culprit contrast hugely with the splendour of his own childhood; a childhood he ensured was enjoyed alone. Nevertheless, it is the distance between the director and the audience, the fear of the unknown that lingers long after the credits roll.
As the closing titles curve the final parentheses around this story, two figures meet on a set of steps. A brief, unheard conversation takes place, again filmed from afar. Co-conspirators? Enemies? Strangers? In Michel Haneke’s unexplained, terrifying world we can be all of the above, yet perhaps none.