Hidden: Guilty viewing

spiked-film: Is Michel Haneke's new film worth seeking out?

Emilie Bickerton

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Michel Haneke has never thought much of us. Since his first feature, The Seventh Continent in 1989, he has developed a cinema of disturbance based on his particular notion of the audience as a passive, selfish, entertainment-hungry bunch.

The spectator ‘must be raped to independence’, he has said; we must be shaken into thinking about the moving images in front of us. This doesn’t mean an excess of violence or shocking scenes, but more often an absence of them. Given how ubiquitous violence is today, Haneke argues, our immunity to it on screen is explicable but terrifying.

Caché (Hidden) continues in this vein. The story is simple: a high-profile television literary critic, Georges, receives anonymous videotapes of his house. They come daily and start to show places from his childhood. Georges’ wife, who works for a successful editor, is concerned: not least for their monosyllabic son, Pierrot, a young swimming champ who sports an unlikely curly mullet. The family is supposed to reflect the typical French middle-class, and does a fine job: good homes, meals with like-minded, verbose friends, a love affair between colleagues, living-rooms lined with books and multimedia and a nice big television providing constant news to the dynamic family passing through. The videotapes intervene and produce, through their nature as seemingly benign surveillance, a self-awareness hitherto absent. Who is watching us? What is there to watch?

As the tapes become increasingly personal, the questions from Georges’ wife become more suspiciously directed. Why you, Georges? Events start to point to a period in Georges’ past, and as a result the film becomes an interrogation of two things: the violation of privacy through images, and the ways of acknowledging, or in this case, turning away from, guilt.

Guilt. It is a big word. It has been attached very liberally to the film, especially by Haneke himself. Georges, we learn, is guilty of an act he committed when he was six years old. Given that all children are naughty at this age, it’s hardly enough of a substantial fact to hold the film together coherently. We can’t attach much gravity to a petty act of jealousy from years gone by. So, we are forced to think allegorically.

Haneke puts the desired allegory on a plate for us: through the screenplay he links Georges’ childhood act to the massacre of around 200 (the figure has never been agreed on) Algerians in Paris, 1961 after protests that took place in support of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) struggle against French colonial occupation. The tragedy was notoriously badly reported at the time, and only later was the police’s intentionality behind the brutal suppression made apparent, largely through the trial of Maurice Papon in the 1990s (he had been the chief of police in 1961).

So: Georges’ refusal to accept guilt for his act as a child, quite acceptable in itself, is really a reflection of the French national denial of its colonial role. Post-colonialism, Haneke believes, manifests itself in this way: middle-class cultivated families dishing out an annual sum to a favourite charity, and spending the rest of the year drinking fine wine, hearing the news, and letting it straight out of the bay window.

It’s easiest to reject Caché on political terms. By Haneke’s logic what exactly does coming to terms with our post-colonial role actually require? Judging by what he has said on the matter, he seems only to have quick-fix answers. This is because he has personalised a nation’s history, transformed it into a moral burden that every successive generation must atone for, rather than learn from.

Much more to Haneke’s credit is his attempt to combine the form of his film, the very way he tells it in the composition of the pictures and scenes, with his underlying message of guilt as well as today’s apparently soporific spectatorship.

The film opens with a long, static shot of a suburban house. Some people cross the street, but otherwise nothing happens. Eventually two voices are heard, they discuss the image and it is at this point that you are invited into the story: it’s a videoshot, you’ve just been watching what Georges was sent, and now you take a step back from being part of their experience, to considering them independently, as characters in a fiction.

Throughout the film Haneke plays with this ambiguity around what you are looking at and your relationship with the film. Because he doesn’t distinguish – via the quality of the image, as it’s most typically done – between video footage sent to Georges and the film about this, your viewing is disturbed, you do not have the confidence of knowing what you’re watching and the guides (the voices that comment over the picture) that tell you ‘footage’ or ‘fiction’ are so obvious that they make you think of the editing that goes on to bring anything to screen. You also ask yourself, just where must the secret camera be hiding? What the position of it must be to shoot without being seen? Questions, of course, for any director.

The final scene mirrors the first, but this time it is loaded with everything you now know of the story; another static, seemingly benign shot, this time of a school. We naturally interrogate every movement, read meaning into it all, create possible narratives to make sense of the otherwise inachevée ending. For sure this makes us aware of ourselves as viewers and the relationship we have with the moving image, a certain degree of self-consciousness does creep in. But really, the suggestions are crude. Editing is manipulative, a passive shot is always still a partial viewpoint, and so on. These are truisms about film that have been made into problems, as directors seem to dream of objectivity whilst at the same time criticising it.

The particular effect of Haneke’s cinema of disturbance is, finally, just disinterest. We are detached from the characters and consequentially any moral or political dilemmas they might represent don’t make themselves felt as an experience of watching the film. What would otherwise be communicated in the film as part of an involving fiction is transferred onto the delivery and composition of the film itself.

This making of the medium into the message may work for some ideas, but when you want it to indict society of being immoral, cold and in denial, then to imitate this through the art only reproduces its targets in the spectator. In this regard, Haneke’s bleak outlook has tripped up his artistic delivery too.

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