A beautiful white house, covered in green ivy. Flats rise high in the background and the road in front is trimmed with expensive cars. On the wall to the left are flower boxes filled with vibrant pink buds, while an old streetlight hangs down from the wall opposite. But something is wrong. The voices we can hear are worried: what is this image of a house? Who has recorded it? Why can one of the voices see themselves leaving the house for work?
The image breaks down and crinkles, a VHS tape is being rewound. The image is one of quiet harassment, telling of even more uncomfortable secrets from the past. This is the opening to Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché), the German filmmaker’s powerful domestic thriller that won him the Best Director prize at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The film revels in the possibilities found in everyday shots of places, roads and buildings, so revisiting such places naturally reveals how carefully Haneke chose his locations.
Hidden follow – or, perhaps more accurately, stalks – the lives of a bourgeois Parisian couple, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche). Georges is the presenter of an intellectual literature programme on French television, making him somewhat renowned. However, all is not well in their seemingly idyllic lives, as they begin to receive video tapes showing long lengths of time recorded outside of their home. They try to track down the assailant but, as they get closer to the truth of who is stalking them and why, their lives begin to crumble. For Georges, childhood memories resurface and it soon becomes apparent that these banal yet unnerving actions are not as random as they first appear.
Various Parisian locations and buildings play a key role in the film. Through their framing, the stillness of the images comes to potentially denote footage recorded by the stalker rather than Haneke. The viewer becomes the voyeur of these buildings and roads, often mysteriously empty and shot in such a reduced, minimal style that it’s often difficult to process what role they are playing. The opening credits play over the image of the house and it feels almost as if someone has left the camera recording while off doing something else. It only begins to take on context when the voices of the main characters speak, raising questions about what they and the viewer are actually witnessing.
Later on, Haneke shows us more of the road, having mostly shot it from the front to play with the possibility of a more sinister visual eye. By mapping out the road in more detail at that point, views of the house from its opening angle become even more unnerving as we know that potentially this may be more evidence of harassment.
The house is situated in the beautiful, cobbled crossroad between rue Brillat-Savarin and rue des Iris in the 13th Arrondissement, just south of the Seine. Such is its ordinary rendering in the everyday summer of the film that it seemed the most likely location to still retain an atmosphere of dread. My visit was in winter and so the building and roads naturally looked barer. Taking the Polaroid in the road, on a day when no one was around due to it being close to Christmas, it occurred to me that I was mimicking the efforts of the film’s unseen antagonist.
Winter had stripped the leaves from the trees and even the constant call of chaffinches – always a key marker for cinematic recreations of the city – were silenced. I felt for the character of Georges, seemingly always watched by cameras, either that of his stalker or even those of his television studio as well as Haneke’s of course. I quickly moved on, having captured what I wanted, though the owners of the house would not, in this case, have it posted ominously through their front door.
One of the reasons why the locations of Hidden work so well is because of how authentic they feel. Visiting the location shows how little Haneke really augmented places for his films. In contrast to a director like Michelangelo Antonioni, who edited his locations heavily in order to find some subtle eeriness, Haneke makes the most of the normalcy of such locations.
Hidden is a film built around the mystery of place and the overall mystery of what such places signify. Within all of this tension is a precise critique of the underlying racism of the middle-class. But to address such a complex issue creatively, Haneke uses the deeply uncanny nature of everyday Paris. It’s a natural leaning for a film that drinks in the ominous stillness that marked the distant yet omnipresent global traumas of the early 2000s.
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