Even in a year when powerful, politically engaged movies abound among the mainstream awards nominations, there is one film everyone is talking about above all others. Despite being absent from the Baftas and Oscars, Hidden (Caché), directed by Michael Haneke, has become the topic of heated conversations around water coolers and over dinner tables across the country. It is on its way to becoming the defining film of a generation.
Hidden is the story of a wealthy Parisian family torn apart when they start receiving videotapes of their house, accompanied by crude, violent drawings. Daniel Auteuil plays Georges Laurent, presenter of a successful literary talk show on TV; Juliette Binoche is his wife, Anne, who works for a publishing house run by an old friend, Pierre. The couple have a 12-year-old son, Pierrot, who competes for his school swimming team. But someone wants to upset this idyll, forcing Georges to unearth a dark secret hidden in his past and buried in his psyche.
Out of this, Haneke crafts a thriller that has audiences twitching with suspicion, letting out gasps at the film's one moment of violence and emerging from the cinema in deep discussion. I can't recall a film in the last decade that has provoked so many theories, nor demanded so many explanations - none of which appear to satisfy, simply feeding the appetite, rather, for second viewings and yet more interpretations.
I rang the director and put five key questions to him in a bid to solve some of Hiddens riddles. Below is what he had to say.
Is it Majid, the son of Algerian farmhands, sent to an orphanage and now an old man seeking revenge for a ruined life? Or is it Majid's own son, avenging on behalf of his father? Were Pierrot and his school friends playing a prank on the fancy TV star dad, the 'bobos' as Georges refers to himself? Or, as suggested by the much-talked-about final shot of the school steps, are Pierrot and Majid's son in cahoots?
Could it be Georges sending the tapes to himself, trying to frame Majid as a stalker? Or could it even be the film-maker away writing a scenario that the group of friends talk about during the dinner party? I've even seen a suggestion that it was Georges's elderly mother.
Haneke says: 'I'm not going to give anyone this answer. If you think it's Majid, Pierrot, Georges, the malevolent director, God himself, the human conscience - all these answers are correct. But if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions?
'People are only asking, "whodunnit?" because I chose to use the genre, the structure of a thriller, to address the issues of blame and conscience, and these methods of narrative usually demand an answer. But my film isn't a thriller and who am I to presume to give anyone an answer on how they should deal with their own guilty conscience?'
2 What is the significance of the shaggy dog story told at the dinner party?
The joke, told by actor Denis Podalydes, brings themes of karma and retribution and of scars from the past remaining visible into the present. It's an unsettling story, which ends in a burst of mock violence, but prepares the way for a sudden act of violence to occur later.
The dinner party is part of Haneke's extended critique of middle-class mores. The guests chat idly of the misfortunes of others, complaining that in divorce, one always has to take sides. Binoche is again wearing one of her sack-like dresses, which are a key part of her deliberately pared-down style.
Haneke says: 'I heard this joke at a dinner party once and thought it so good I wrote it down when I got home and always wanted to use it. I think it sits well here because it makes people ask if it's true or not. If you tell it well, people are never sure if you're joking.'
3 Why swimming?
Pierrot swims for his school and in one scene wins a race, which delights his parents who are attending the gala. In fact, it's the only time we see them happy together. But is this a flashback to a happier time? There is also a mysterious swimming coach, whose voice we hear, and who we see only in silhouette, but he obviously knows Pierrot and his family. Does the water perhaps signify a sort of religious motif of ritual cleansing? Does it connect to the drownings of more than 200 Algerians in the River Seine after the clashes with the police on 17 October 1961, deaths rarely spoken about in the French media and the riots which made Majid an orphan?
Haneke says: 'We chose swimming because the young actor who plays Pierrot can swim well. It's very simple. If we'd have chosen football or skiing, the audience wouldn't believe he's good enough to be on the team. It's also very cinematic, with the water and the noise - nothing more profound than that.'
4 Why set the story in the media?
Georges lives and breathes books. He's surrounded by them, when he works, relaxes, eats. His set in the TV studio is similarly surrounded by books. His dining room is in a sort of stylish library, where the family take breakfast and dinner and entertain guests. But there is also a library in the living room, although this has books and video tapes in it, with a huge TV in the centre, a screen which becomes increasingly dominant, acting like a window - into Georges's private life and soul, when they play the tapes on it, and onto the world, as news programmes blare away - ignored - in the background, telling of continued wars and colonial-type disputes in Iraq and Palestine.
We also see Georges at work, editing his show, cutting out bits of opinion and conversation he doesn't like. He enjoys the status his fame brings and he's pleased when he hears that a distant relative always watches his programme, or when friends come round to watch the show - but he doesn't always like being watched.
Haneke says: 'I like the multiplicity of books, because each book is different in the mind of each reader. It's the same with this film - if 300 people are in a cinema watching it, they will all see a different film, so in a way there are thousands of different versions of Hidden. The point being that, despite what TV shows us, and what the news stories tell us, there is never just one truth, there is only personal truth.'
5 What clues are in the final scene?
The film ends with a long shot of Pierrot's school steps, with children coming out at the end of the day. We've seen this very static shot before, earlier in the film, when Georges goes to pick his son up. In the final scene, we can make out two crucial characters coming together on the steps. They have a conversation. It's hard to tell if they know each other already or if this is their first meeting, but the conversation seems civil. It's the long shot that makes it seem threatening.
Is this more surveillance footage, from a hidden camera or from a school security camera? Are we being shown, finally, whodunnit? Is this a call to both France and Algeria to deal with the past and move forward together? Or is it the cycle of hatred recommencing, the sins of fathers rippling on into the present?
Haneke says: 'Although this scene happens in silence, I did actually write dialogue for it. The actors are actually speaking it and it might stand as an explanation for some. In any case, that dialogue will never be written in the published screenplay for the film and I told the actors never to reveal it to anyone. They are bound to silence forever and I hope they will have forgotten it by now, because they didn't know when they were shooting it what the significance of the scene might be.'
Do you enjoy deliberately frustrating people? 'I look at it as productive frustration. Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more answers at the end, then surely it is a richer experience. '