Philip French: The acting all around is outstanding, with Auteuil and Binoche working beautifully together as their marriage falls apart, expressing their emotional upheaval through the slight movement of an eye or the flicker of a lip

The latest movie of the Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, Hidden (aka Caché) is probably his best so far, much superior to his last two, the empty post-nuclear holocaust Time of the Wolf and the hollow, masochistic The Piano Teacher. It is what Umberto Eco calls an open work, a film that viewers are invited, indeed compelled, to engage with and contribute to, as opposed to a closed text which resolves everything and leaves you to just hear, read or watch passively. The movie pursues a couple of Haneke's continuing obsessions - most notably middle-class liberal guilt and the way electronic images are competing with reality for our attention. And it follows on from his first French-language movie, Code Unknown (1990), also set in Paris and also starring Juliette Binoche, which ended with an unforgettably unnerving sequence in which an angry young Arab torments Binoche on a train in the Paris Metro.

The movie begins like David Lynch's Lost Highway with a man being disconcerted by the receipt of a mysterious video cassette left on his doorstep by an anonymous tormentor who seems to be observing his every move. It ends in the manner of Antonioni's The Passenger, where a paranoid protagonist (Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, Daniel Auteuil in Hidden) settles down to a troubled sleep to be followed by a hypnotic long take that seems to explain things but in fact leaves us more disturbed than ever.

Auteuil plays Georges Laurent, a French literary celebrity with his own TV book show (a figure inspired by Bernard Pivot). He's married to the beautiful Anne (Juliette Binoche), an editor with a prestigious Parisian publishing house, and they have a 12-year-old son Pierrot, a champion swimmer. Suddenly their complacently happy existence is thrown into disarray when they're sent a series of video cassettes of their home, followed by others that suggest an intimate knowledge of Georges's early life. The cassettes are accompanied by childish drawings of a boy spewing blood and a cockerel with blood flowing from its neck.

Are they the subject of a practical joke? Can Pierrot and some prankster schoolboys be behind it? Or is it something more sinister? The police can do nothing to help. But from the start there are hints that there is a guilty secret in Georges's past connected with an Arab boy whose Algerian parents some 40 years ago worked on the estate in southern France owned by Georges's mother and father. One of the tapes leads to Georges tracking down this boy, now a man in early middle age, whom he hasn't seen for decades. Accusations fly and denials are made in an angry confrontation. A dangerous rift ensues when Georges conceals things from Anne, and his job is threatened by the possibility of revelations in the media.

Haneke once made an impressive film version of Kafka's The Castle, and Hidden is distinctly Kafkaesque, a story quivering with existential dread. Every little incident sets Georges on edge. An angry encounter with a black cyclist in the street nearly touches off a fistfight. An urban legend passed off as a real experience at the dinner table upsets him. An empty street is charged with menace. Everything that was once orderly starts to strike the audience as odd. A TV set increasingly appears to dominate a book-lined sitting room. Rows of fake books without titles that form the backdrop to the studio discussions Georges chairs cease to be décor and take on the menacing aspect of an expressionist nightmare.

While Georges is clearly paranoid, he truly has something to be paranoid about. His guilt derives from an incident that occurred when he was six, but it reflects a larger malaise connected to the events surrounding the Algerian war and the country's treatment of Arabs abroad and in France. What he suppresses is something the whole nation has been driving down into its collective subconscious. So while Hidden is a gripping thriller, it is almost a moral and political enquiry into colonialism and its aftermath. The acting all around is outstanding, with Auteuil and Binoche working beautifully together as their marriage falls apart, expressing their emotional upheaval through the slight movement of an eye or the flicker of a lip. This is a movie that takes one back to the glory days of art-house films in the 1960s and 70s, when you left the cinema not in need of food and drink, but a sympathetic person to discuss the film with.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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