Friday, 20 January 2006

A justifiably large claim

Temporarily giving the big Friday afternoon FU to my dissertation and to another incredibly frustrating writing project (twice trashed then resurrected) to note this exemplary review of Michael Haneke's Hidden which appeared in today's Guardian. Mark Lawson ventures the opinion that Hidden might be "one of the first great movies of the 21st century":
I am not persuaded of this simply because the protagonist does the same job as I do. The profession of Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is largely a premise for the driving metaphor of Haneke's film, which is that someone whose job is to be watched - Georges is host of a literary discussion programme on French TV - finds himself almost being destroyed by a watcher (who may or may not also be a viewer).

But the importance of this movie is not that it involves the media. There is nothing narrow about the appeal of this piece. The 63-year-old Austrian-born director - previously known for cult successes such as Funny Games (1997), Code Unknown (2000) and The Piano Teacher (2001) - has here made his most mainstream film. Broadcasting, for Haneke, is merely what Hitchcock (who I believe would have loved to have made Hidden) called the McGuffin, the engine for the tension. The film's brilliance is that it is a sweat-inducing thriller that draws on two of the biggest political issues of the time: the surveillance society and national political guilt.

To this I will add that the movie also brings out, devastatingly, the interpenetrations of private (familial) patterns of domination and psychic warfare with national and global patterns and pasts, and it does this in a way that's utterly specific to the hurts sustained by Western culture since September 11, and their disavowed and suppressed histories. It's also worth mentioning that the movie is deeply unsympathetic to its chief proponents of the Western (European) bourgeois lifestyle - angry with them, even, for their weakness and forgetfulness and cupidity. Hidden is built around a single swift act of breathtaking psychological cruelty - at once violent and circumscribed - which acts as an alembic for all the baffling nebulous horrors and wrongs and fears insidiously networked through the movie at large. Its companion piece, though a less masterful work, is Ian McEwan's novel Saturday; not least because on going through both these texts you get the uncomfortable sense that one reason the work seems so perceptive and resonant is that the present social climate accords so well with the artist's long-term proclivities for slow burning tensions, ambiguities and explosive violence.

Lawson is right I think to suggest that there is very much more to Hidden than an anatomy of the uses of 'broadcasting' in propagating terror and paranoia, but it's not 'merely' a Macguffin (narrative pretext masquerading as a question) either. (Not that there is anything clumsy or trivial about Macguffins expertly deployed.) Television broadcasting perhaps looks like a pretext in the movie because it's ubiquitous and presented without comment, but it's nested into the set of video artifacts in the film in a way that draws out what they all share - a complex attitude made up of possessive appropriation, sociopathic impersonality, disconnect and desensitisation, exhibitionism, ownership and control. It all sounds embarrassingly Foucauldian, I know, but as with real art of any description, the work itself roundly betters any attempts to paraphrase or explicate.

Someone's pasted some kind of synopsis over this still - a pity, since it's an iconic image of the movie and this is the only rendering I found on the net. Any German-enabled readers about? I'd be grateful to know if this text gives away possibly surprising details or if it's managed to remain carefully cryptic.

Hidden is on limited release in the US and opens shortly in the UK. The Australian distributor doesn't seem to have any dates yet, which is surprising and disappointing. When it does finally show up here, move mountains to see it.

Another reason Lawson's piece is noteworthy is that it deals neatly and elegantly with the acute problem this movie poses in terms avoiding spoilers, something I've tried to discuss elsewhere and still find consistently interesting. Christopher Sharrett's Cineaste essay on the movie deals with the spoiler issue in another way, that is, by ignoring it - a mode I prefer since it seems ridiculous to suppose that simply knowing the details of the plot of a highly wrought and complex artwork can destroy what's of value in that work, inclding narrative pleasure (though that is an odd notion in connection with Haneke's films.) Still there is also the question of courtesies due to readers, particularly wide audiences of nonspecialist papers like the Guardian.

(Mostly X-posted to Larvatus Prodeo)


Lurker said...

The translation is something like:

"Georges, the presenter of a literary TV show, receives videos of him and his family taken secretly from the street which, as well as being disturbing, are difficult to interpret. He has no idea where the sender is. Bit by bit the contents of the video become more personal, supporting the suspicion that the sender has known George for a long time. Georges feels that he and his family are under threat."

Carefully cryptic? I translate, you decide.

Helen said...

Funny Games is without a doubt the most hideous movie I have ever seen. The Piano Teacher would be in the running for the second most hideous.

Funny games distressed me for weeks with its portrayal of senseless thrill killing of people, for want of a better cliche, "just like us".

Lucy Tartan said...

Yep. I haven't seen Funny Games but had exactly the same reaction you describe to an earlier film of Haneke's, The Seventh Continent, about a family who commit suicide but first systematically destroy all their possessions.

Thanks, Lurker.

genevieve said...

Thanks for your comments, I'll make sure I see it.

JM said...

I saw the preview for this when I went to see _Breakfast on Pluto_ (awesome) and knew immediately that I want to see it. I cannot wait until it comes to my town, which should be in the next month or two.

R H said...

Why destroy all their possessions when they could just put them out on the footpath?

I think these sorts of films are really intelligent. Spiritually strengthening!
Highbrow blood and guts beats lowbrow violence any old day.

Oscar Wildebeest said...

I saw Hidden on Friday, and thought Lawson's comments over-praised the film, although it is very good indeed (and much more bearable than Funny Games, a film I never want to see again as long as I live - not because it's no good (it's brilliant), but because it left me literally shaking).

The main drawback is my inability to speak French (much), which meant that I was coming to a film which has a very visual element (the combination of film and video) through the unfortunate filter of subtitles. Off-putting, but that's my fault for not speaking more French.