People grow fidgety just believing they’re being observed, and, what with concerns about Big Brotherism in a terrorism-wary West, surveillance and loss of privacy are hot-buttons. It would seem no more than natural that Hidden/Caché,a movie about surveillance of ordinary citizens, begin with an excruciatingly held view of their ordinary house down Rue des Iris. But despite many such uncomfortably drawn-out static moments, plus re-runs and rewinds of the anonymous videos so recorded, this New York Film Festival Closing Night movie is not about insidious government or a sadistic, vengeful or perverted voyeur. Who, exactly, is doing the watching, who or what he/she is watching, and what the game is, are in fact not clarified after a few trails prove probably false though still open.
Paris-based Austrian screenwriter-director Michael Haneke’s selection is not about the observer at all but centers, instead, on the observed, their unsettled “urban paranoia” and plunge into emotional self-destruction from what had formerly seemed secure middle-class lifestyle. Were the film content at this level, even with, or perhaps more effective because of, the unmasked perpetrator, it might have been a good if minor-key study of crumbling façades, marital suspiciousness, and man’s tenuous grip on the surfaces of his life.
But the frequent long takes, such as in the overblue bedroom or on the final school steps, are painful both on the eye and on the plot, the hints of and claims for a not so “latent racism” are beside the point, and even the husband’s probable end following malaise and two prescription pills from an accessible kitchen drawer is unsatisfactory. The central couple’s squabbles, misunderstandings, and mistrust are convincing enough but lead nowhere, and the audience exits into daylight confused and dissatisfied with too many uncertainties in the air.
About one morning publisher’s assistant Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) finds a common plastic supermarket bag at their door and in it a video recording nothing more sinister than their two-storey house fronted by a tree. Around the cassette is a childish black crayon line-drawing of a head, its Rolling Stones red tongue hanging down to the left. Her husband Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a television cultural talk-show host, is drawn to, vaguely disconcerted by, the unmoving images and questions her and their twelve-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky).
Evasive phone calls come for Georges and, coincident with a friend’s shaggy-dog joke about a dog and a man with bleeding necks, more cassettes are left, their drawings altered in that the red slash now severs the figure’s neck. Husband and wife pick at one another, spar, and in a totally false episode Pierrot disappears, to be found guilty only of adolescent oversight and a suspicion that maman is carrying on with contentedly mated mutual friend Pierre (Daniel Duval).
There are teasing flashbacks, or visions, in Georges’s mind, brief seconds of blood, a flopping decapitated rooster, a young boy advancing with an axe. Through windshield wipers, yet another video displays the front of a country house, Georges’s boyhood home, so on the way to Aix he pays a visit to his ailing widowed mother (Annie Girardot) and discusses Majid (Malik Nait Djoudi), the orphaned child of “jigaboo” workers that his parents had come close to adopting forty years ago. Another, also through a car window, reveals a Lenin Avenue sign, in Romainville, and Georges goes to that suburb and down a hallway of workers’ flats, to confront a stocky man his own age, swarthy and soft-voiced.
Surprised and not surprised, the man is Majid (Maurice Benichou), who denies any involvement but whom Georges warns and then lies about to Anne. The wife upset about his lack of trust, his boss worried about negative publicity affecting a new show due May 15, Georges returns to Majid, only to witness unrealistic momentary violence that brought a few audience gasps from those my neighbors said could not be real New Yorkers. Haunted and feeling hunted, the TV host is confronted at work by the Arab’s dignified grown son (Walid Afkir), who also disclaims knowledge or motivation beyond curiosity about the Frenchman’s conscience. Innocent and unshaken on the outside, Georges feels physically ill, and, the film would like to imply, morally so, as well.
Everyone denying, no one affirming responsibility, nothing is made definite. It cannot be suppressed guilty imagination, for the tangible tapes and drawings are there. But so are the unanswered questions, and, rather than suggestive pseudo-psychological mystery, there is finally a deflating less than meets the eye.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for brief strong violence.)