Cache (Hidden): Thriller from Michael Haneke Starring Juliette Binoche

Cannes Film Fest 2005–A psychological thriller with strong political overtones about the troubled relations between France and Algiers, “Hidden” (“Cache”) was the second film in the Cannes competition this year to deal with a bourgeois nuclear family threatened by forces from within and from without. The other film was David Cronenberg’s stunning achievement, “A History of Violence.”

Recent films by Austrian director Michael Haneke have been shot in France with French stars, such as “Code Unknown” (“Code Inconnu,” with Juliette Binoche) and “The Piano Teacher,” with Isabelle Huppert, which won the Special Jury in Cannes in 2001. New film, which he also scripted, stars Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as a married couple whose life is preyed upon and threatened by mysterious stalkers.

Haneke is not only a master of gripping suspense and muffled violence, as demonstrated in “Funny Games,” an accomplished but lesser picture than “Hidden,” but he’s also a sharp observer of human behavior in extreme, crisis situations, as was the case in last year’s Cannes out-of-competition entry, the existential end-of-the-world saga, “Hour of the Wolves.”

Unlike most American suspense thrillers, the tension in all of Haneke’s films derives from –and is integral to — everyday life. This recurrent motif establishes a direct link between his work and that of the ultimate master of suspense, Hitchcock, whose films are also predicated on the notion of a complacent middle-class existence, shattered by various forces of terror and horror.

One of Europe’s most accomplished filmmakers, whose work is shamefully little known in the U.S., Haneke is an arthouse auteur, whose oeuvre is marked by a number of persistent issues: the haunting, inevitable effect of the past on the present, personal and collective guilt, paranoia created by and manifest in both the domestic and political arenas, bourgeois complacency, and individuals reluctance and inability to take responsibility for their own conduct. Haneke’s dark, cynical and ambiguous worldview is reflected in each of his films, including his metaphysical, apocalyptic meditation on the end-of-the-world in “Hour of the Wolves.”

It’s to the credit of Haneke as a screenwriter that, though politics is very much part of the narrative, the characters are individualized enough as to not serve as ideological mouthpieces for First World countries (such as France and the U.S.) versus small, underprivileged Third World ones.

Georges (Auteuill), the host of a TV literary show, is a complacent bourgeois, having been born into wealthy, educated family. Anne (Binoche), his wife, is also a career woman, an editor. Their bright adolescent son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), is going through the growing pains typical of that age very much on his own.

The family’s routine life is interrupted by anonymous delivery of threatening videotapes and phone calls. The videos are secretly shot from the street in front of their house, which means that someone with the right equipment is observing them. “Hidden” begins with a long, middle range static shot of the front of the house, a seemingly calm image that Haneke repeats throughout the film and increasingly gets more and more threatening. Some of the tapes are wrapped by wild drawings in red of a strange, childlike figure.

At first, the couple thinks that it is a prank of their son or some of his classmates. But later, when the videos persist arriving, at all times of the day, the duo begins to fear for their lives and for the safety of their son.

Georges claim that he knows the perpetrator’s identity, but can’t share this privileged info with his wife, which, of course, throws the couple into a crisis mode, with Anne, offended and hurt, perceiving it as a clear case of mistrust and even distrust.

Through flashbacks, a painful, traumatic episode of Georges’ childhood is recreated. Since this is a major suspense element, not much can be revealed without spoiling the fun. Suffice is to say that it has to do with the relationship between Georges and his family and a family of Algerians, who worked for his father. This episode ends when Georges becomes responsible for sending the Algerian boy (who’s his age) to a boarding school.

Georges later encounters the Algerian boy, now a mature man, and his son, and the encounters ends in him witnessing a tragic and violent suicide. Though at first denying any responsibility, gradually, Georges begins to feel an intense guilt that eventually tears him and his entire family apart.

The suspenser ends ambiguously, without ever revealing the identity of the mysterious stalkers and the fate of Georges and his family. The last shot of the film, like the first one, is a frontal middle range image of the school that Pierrot attends. Yet it’s not clear if Pierrot is being observed, about to be kidnapped, or waited to be picked up by his parents. The open-ended finale will frustrate American viewers who’re used to seeing thrillers in which every element is explained.

A whole dissertation could be written about the differences between David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Haneke’s “Hidden,” which share stronger thematic elements in common. In he both films, the central unit is a seemingly happy nuclear family whose balance is shattered. In both, the husband’s identity and past are not entirely known to his wife. Yet, stylistically, the two works could not have been different, reflecting both the idiosyncratic vision of their respective directors as well as the national cinema and tradition within which they work.

The title, “Hidden,” has multiple meanings, some literal, other more metaphysical. “Hidden” could refer to the hidden camera that secretly record and invade Georges’ domestic life. But the moniker could also describe the past of Georges as a child, hidden both from his wife as well as his own consciousness. The tapes force Georges to begin to come to terms with his past, and the last shot of Georges is just as ambiguous as the film’s finale.

Though the problematic relations between France and Algiers (which was a colony until it reached independence through violent war) occurred over 40 years ago, the story bears clear resonance to the problematic interracial relations between French and Algerians living in France at the present. By extension, “Hidden” has implications for the relations between any First World-Third World countries, past or present.

“Hidden” might have been over praised by critics in Cannes due to the shortage of great films. Nonetheless, it is an intelligent film for mature viewers that works effectively as a psychological thriller and political allegory. Sony Pictures Classics, which picked up the film for American distribution, could score big with a film that combines the sensibility of a European art film with that of a commercial genre item.

It’s about time that Michael Haneke, whose work is almost obscure stateside, should receive a major retrospective honoring his two-decade career.

End note

Cache’s major award wins include:

– Best Director Award, Cannes Film Festival
– FIPRESCI Award, Cannes Film Festival
– Ecumenical Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival
– Best Foreign Language Film, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
– Best Foreign Language Film, San Francisco Film Critics Association
– Closing Night Selection, New York Film Festival
– Official Selection, Toronto Film Festival
– Official Selection, Telluride Film Festival

Nominated for 7 European Film Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and the Cesar, Frances equivalent of the Oscar.