Hidden (Caché) Review
With a cool, distanced approach to an explosive situation that shows up the cracks in a middle-class family and jump-cut moments of sudden, inexplicable violence, there is no mistaking the familiar subject matter and filming methods of the director in Caché. This is clearly a Michael Haneke film and although it is tied to a thriller plot this time, it remains just as infuriatingly oblique, ambiguous, open-ended and preachy as many of his other films.
Opening with a static five minute shot of the front of a house, we gradually come to realise from voices in the background and the sudden reversal of movement, that we are actually watching a videotape. The nature of the footage makes it look like a video surveillance tape, but it soon becomes clear that the video was made without the knowledge of the people in the house, from a bizarre raised angle that would make it strange that they would not have noticed it. The family being watched and filmed are Georges and Anne Laurent – George (Daniel Auteuil) is the host of a literary chat-show for a TV company, his wife Anne (Juliet Binoche) herself works for a book publisher. The tape showing them entering and leaving their house has been delivered anonymously to their door, with an accompanying childlike drawing that seems quite menacing. The videotapes continue to arrive anonymously, without the family being aware of who is making them, how they are managing to do it unseen or why they are doing it at all – but since there has been no overt threat made against them, the police are powerless to act. The videotapes however start to show more than just the front of the Laurent house and leave clues and hints of an event in Georges’ past that he has no option but to investigate.
Caché is certainly an intriguing film, but for much more than its apparent thriller setup, which is a nominal plot device (and one incidentally that owes something to David Lynch’s Lost Highway - a far superior treatment and dissection of the neuroses of the bourgeois couple), since it is never definitively resolved and certainly not Haneke’s reason for making the film. The real intrigue here is working out just what Haneke is getting at, but if you look back at his previous films, this is not that difficult to grasp. The examination of the flaws in the educated, bourgeois European family unit has already been covered in Haneke’s debut film, The Seventh Continent. The treatment and integration of immigrants into a flawed society and the conflicts that arise is also the subject of 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance and Code Unknown. Haneke further explored a combination of the flaws of middle-class complacency and the power of video images in Benny’s Video, while extending the frame to implicate the viewer in what they are watching. In Funny Games the director particularly forces the viewer to consider their own response to what they are watching, by making them a willing but unwitting participant in horrendous scenes of brutality. In Code Unknown, Haneke also shows how he easily a viewer can be manipulated through a number of scenes that flirted with the viewers perception of reality and fiction. All of these themes are delved into further here in Caché, showing us simple surveillance images and allowing the Laurent family, and by extension the viewer, to impress their own interpretation of menace onto it. The power of the image to alter, confirm or deny what we wish it to show, is also covered here in Georges’ denial of what has occurred to his wife, only to have her produce an anonymously sent tape that seems to contradict what he has said.
And it is what is kept hidden – obviously, given the title of the film – that is the key to understanding what the film is about. The childhood secrets that Georges keeps from Anne, and his unwillingness to discuss things with his wife, lead her to seek confidence, and possibly an affair with one of their friends. This is perceived in another way by their son, and the whole twisted mass of secrets and lies fractures the structure of their middle class family. Inevitably in such a context, guilt is also a key factor when things are kept hidden and this is alluded to in many ways, not least of which is the collective guilt of the French people – if you want to take the Laurent couple as representative of the French people in that wider context – towards Algeria. Haneke is quite happy to encourage you to make those kind of leaps and then deny having made any such concrete implication.
It is in such playing around with the abstractions of guilt, rather than delivering a traditional film plot treatment of the subject, that we have what is both the strength of Haneke’s film and also its weakness. It is too vague and too open, giving the viewer enough information to allow them to reach certain conclusions – but not definitively – and then disingenuously stepping back as if to say – no, that’s not what this is about, that’s only one interpretation of what you think it is about. He goes as far as leaving the final scene outside a school just as ambiguous – allowing it to be taken as potentially sinister or optimistic, depending on how you want to look at it and – in a film where you can never be sure whether you are looking at a scene filmed by the director or a surveillance video – the question of who filmed the scene also has to be considered. It’s an intriguing proposition, and one that is much more challenging than giving easy pat answers that wrap everything up, but it is a trick that Haneke has pulled far too often and it is just not satisfactory here. Nor are the familiar sudden high shock-factor moments of inexplicable violence that are the director’s trademark. Despite his protestations that he presents the material with impartiality, the impression remains that while he can be a quite brilliant director, in this film at least Haneke again reveals himself as an arch-manipulator of the worst kind – didactically serving up empty tautology and flirting with controversial issues, using his audience as guinea-pigs for experiments and funny games that prove nothing and say even less.
Hidden is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is Region 2 encoded.
The transfer of the film on this UK release is almost perfect. A flawless image, the colours are superb and accurate in Haneke’s trademark cold tones. Clarity, depth, detail and textures all show up vividly and are beyond reproach, with even night-time scenes and dark interiors perfectly toned and balanced. The image remains remarkably stable throughout, with only the merest flicker of compression artefacts on a very few scenes. The film is transferred at a ratio of 1.78:1. To all intents and purposes, this is as good as a DVD transfer gets, and it’s one of the best I have seen.
There is not much to find fault with either in the audio options. The soundtrack presented here as either Dolby Digital 2.0 or Dolby Digital 5.1. The 5.1 mix is marginally closer to the original mix, which is centre channel and practically mono, keeping it consistent with Haneke’s other films. The Dolby Digital 2.0 doesn’t really open the mix out much and might as well also be mono. In terms of quality, the dialogues and effects are strong, clear and intentionally unobtrusive - the subtle mixing not drawing attention, but having an impact nonetheless through the judicious use of tense pauses and open ambience.
Optional English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font, translating the film well.
Michael Haneke Interview (25:27)
Interviewed by Serge Toubiana from the same session of interviews that are included in the French 3 Films de Michael Haneke boxset, Haneke describes Caché as a moral tale about the acceptance of guilt. There you have it in a nutshell. Going through a number of scenes, Haneke typically describes various interpretations – each can mean everything or nothing, not least the last scene of the film.
Making of Hidden (31:52)
Again, in a film where the director is not looking to achieve anything except ambiguity, there is little you can learn about the film from the interviews here or the showing of how it was filmed. A film about hidden surveillance however takes on another dimension when you actually see the people and cameras filming the scenes. That can be a good thing or a bad thing or neither (two can play at this ambiguity game). You do get some indication however of the intensity and rigour with which Haneke works.
The trailer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, is powerful since all the mystery elements lead the film to look like an intense thriller.
A brief biography and filmography is provided for Haneke, including his Austrian TV work, while selected filmographies only are included for Binoche and Auteuil.
You are constantly left with the feeling that you have missed something here in Caché, but despite what speculations and interpretations other reviewers might place on it, that is all they are – speculation. If you want to view Hidden as many have done as “a masterpiece” or “the first great film of the 21st century”, the film’s wide openness allows you to do so. By the same token it allows you to draw no conclusion or find no new ideas to consider whatsoever, since none are proposed. Lacking any of the real-world application for his talents that the script for The Piano Teacher offered, Haneke is happy here, yet again, to play that same little game of offering up a situation rife with suggestion on big, empty, abstract themes like “guilt” without having a single original idea or point to make about them. Worse, it’s something that he has already elaborated on endlessly and just as inconsequentially in many of his other films, using exactly the same technique of distant impartiality and violent shock tactics. Bereft of any real meaning other than those that the viewer is free to lend to the film themselves (if they are so generously inclined as to do Haneke’s work for him), Caché is just another big, pretentious, self-important and clever manipulation of the viewer by Haneke, playing with his comfortable, complacent middle-class intellectual audience – and that smug cleverness is evident in every cold, oblique shot of this frustrating film which has no point other than to give film critics and arthouse movie buffs something to feel clever dissecting. Haneke is a fascinating and brilliantly talented director – I just wish he had something to say.