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Questions of Ambiguity


There are several questions we wish to ask about Hidden (Caché), Austrian director Michael Haneke’s most talked about film, and a strangely troublesome one in form and in content. One is what does it mean to play fair by an audience; another, and connected, is how important is it to offer a coherent story, a logically consistent series of events that lead one to another? A third concerns the film’s politics.

Now a film can sometimes play fair while simultaneously containing important areas of ambiguity and possess elliptical moments. Michelangelo Antonioni for example is a master of the ambiguous and the elliptical. In L’Avventura one never finds out what happened to the missing Anna, at the end of La Notte we don’t know whether the couple will stay together or not, and shortly before the conclusion of The Passenger we don’t know exactly what happens in Locke’s room as the camera leaves the hotel and concentrates on the courtyard only to circle back to observe that the living Locke at the beginning of the shot is now dead. Antonioni is what we might call the master of elliptical ambiguity, and lest one thinks this a tautology, we might muse over examples of elliptical un-ambiguity; of which Hitchcock was a master. How does Scottie get off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo, what are the secrets someone sells in North by Northwest? These ellipses cause us no epistemological problems, and indeed even work well within Hitchcock’s fascination with plot logic: his story holds together perfectly without anyone needing to know what aspect is missing. All the necessary variables are in place.

But what happens if a filmmaker works between Antonioni’s interest in elliptical ambiguity and Hitchcock’s interest in plot logic, and is Michael Haneke’s Hidden one such film? It is as though there is a tension between the need to generate epistemological suspense out of the story concerning a series of notes and tapes central character and TV presenter Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) receives, and the need to call into question that suspense. But the problem arises when the former doesn’t smoothly give way to the latter; but instead where the residual questions of plot logic hover over the film’s attempt at getting us to think through the film differently.

Let us return to our example from L’Avventura. Anna goes missing and the partner and her best friend go looking for her rather half-heartedly. We never find out where she has gone, and the viewer may be troubled by the question being left unanswered, but with the characters neither especially interested, and our awareness that people go missing all the time and are never found, we can accept that Antonioni has violated no rules of reasoning in the process of never telling us what happened to Anna. In The Passenger, when the camera pans round the courtyard it is again entirely acceptable that Antonioni chooses to eschew the narrative event to generate ambiguity in the sequence. Who has killed David Locke in his hotel room; has he even possibly killed himself?

Yet Haneke works with certain plot details that would seem to demand playing fair to the expectations of the generic cinema and character logic he hasn’t completely eschewed. When for example the man, Majid (Maurice Benichou), who was briefly adopted by Georges’ family when a boy, commits suicide in front of him late in the film, Georges would need to move the body to get out of the flat, thus making what was clearly a suicide look more suspicious and complicated than that in the eyes of those who will come across the scene. Now of course some will say that because Majid is lying against the door, then whoever comes across the body will move it by opening the door themselves, but will it move in exactly the same way if it is opened from the inside as opposed to the outside, and won’t there be blood already congealed in a place that revealed the body had been moved etc. etc? And though the scene resembles Hitchcock’s in Vertigo in terms of dramatic ellipsis, it is more troublesome for the simple reason that how Scottie gets down from the roof is dramatically significant within the context of the scene, but irrelevant in the context of the story’s logic. It raises no questions beyond the simple one of how did he get off the roof. In Hidden’s case, though, Georges must get out of the room without leaving any trace, for there is no sense that he has reported the crime, and no suggestion that he is later questioned by the police concerning it.

What is important in our analysis, however, is not to take Haneke to task simply for failing to follow through on the plot expectations of the policier and whodunit. That is one thing. But is it not fair to ask a filmmaker to follow through on the sort of questions he has already set himself? For example, it seems likely that the suicide has been filmed, and Georges’ exit from the flat also. Earlier in the film when Georges visits Majid, he later receives a tape with the conversation that took place in the apartment. Now earlier in the film when Georges received the first tape, a film recording of the flat in which he and his family live, he went outside to try and work out from where the footage was shot. In the scene after he watches Majid’s suicide, we have no indication that he has searched out the place from where in the apartment, or outside it, the footage was filmed

Are these idle questions, too plot centred in a film that wants to enquire into the nature of personal guilt and responsibility? We think not, for Hidden is nothing if not a psychological thriller. It seems to want us to enquire into the small details of a life, and the reactions to it. In one scene, Georges’s wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), is comforted by their friend, Pierre (Daniel Duval). Not long afterwards, her son wonders why she spends so much time with this work colleague. It seems extremely unlikely an affair is taking place (there is no sign of duplicity on Anne’s part), yet the son might have a point even it is a misplaced one. There does seem a lack of family unity, and clearly Pierre is more understanding of Anne’s needs than her husband if the scene where he clasps her hand is a reasonable barometer of their friendship. Haneke expects us to assess the feelings and reasoning procedures of his characters, and so it is understandable if one wonders how Georges got out of the apartment, and why he didn’t remove the camera if he found it, and if he did remove it, why it wouldn’t be the first thing he tells his wife, or for that matter the first thing the wife asks him when he says he’s witnessed Majid’s death in the block of flats from which they have already been sent a tape.

Haneke has on previous occasions been interested in utilising genre, of course, most obviously in Funny Games, where he played on the conventions of the intruder in the house thriller to ask questions about viewer culpability involved in the sadism of the experience. In Time of the Wolf, Haneke drew on science fiction for a post-apocalyptic study in human belief in the face of a world returning to primitivist instinct. Certain critics (like Mark Kermode in Sight and Sound) may have been irritated by Funny Games, seeing it as a film naively wanting its cake and to eat it too, while Haneke was himself dismissive of the sci-fi genre that he was ostensibly working in with Time of the Wolf – claiming he had seen hardly any sci-film films – but the films weren’t logically inconsistent works. They seemed true to their own intentions, however cavalier he happened to be with the genres he was borrowing from.

Hidden is a more important film – more ambitious in its aims, more probing in nailing something about a bourgeois moral malaise – but the film leaves us not only with the elliptical ambiguity so mastered by Antonioni, but also the begged ambiguity consistent with thrillers full of plot holes. In this sense Haneke’s film resembles Atonement, a work that elides an incident that leads one to wonder over the specifics of the situation that the film eschews, and another work, albeit much less probing and challenging than Haneke’s film, that wants to assume the viewer will forego certain questions and ask others. In Joe Wright’s film (adapted from Ian McEwan’s book that has exactly the same problems), the brilliant, Cambridge educated son of the servants of a grand house, gets accused by the younger daughter of the house, Briony, of raping a cousin. Actually it was someone else, but Briony is in love with Robbie and cannot stand to see that he is clearly in love with her older sister. The entire events surrounding the court-case are completely eschewed, and the sort of implausibilities in Briony’s story are passed over. The film is a psychological film, yet like Haneke’s, at certain moments, bypasses the psychological: Briony’s story would surely not stand up in a court of law, and if it did, would do so only with the complete support of others within the family, many of whom seemed sympathetic to Joe before the rape, and would at least we might assume question Briony’s flimsy story. None of these reasoning processes are given, as the film builds towards psychological complexity only to forego it as it jumps forward in time. It feels like the proverbial sleight of hand.

Haneke’s film is much less interested than Atonement in narrative manipulation. Indeed much of what makes the film significant lies in its far greater interest in phenomenological manipulation: the manner in which it wants to call into question our belief in the very images we’re watching, and why it is an infinitely more important work than the McEwan adaptation. At certain moments – at the beginning of the film, in a scene showing someone driving to the half-brother’s house – we assume we are watching ‘the film’ only to realize we are watching a tape within the film. Haneke has frequently found ways to pull the rug formally from under us: in Funny Games footage is rewound; in Code Unknown a scene in the film is shown to be a film within the film. In Time of the Wolf, he takes the obvious problem of post-apocalyptic society without electricity, and forces the viewer to make sense of many scenes shot with very low light levels. Haneke is one of the great contemporary sceptical cineastes, constantly telling us that the camera often lies, and forcing suspicion and doubt upon us in the viewing experience.

But it is this rectitude that demands we offer rectitude of our own. If Haneke insists that so many films don’t play fair with us, we have to ask if he is playing fair also. When Haneke calls into question violence in many American films, he does so saying “is it that the very similarity of the forms of representation by which real and fictional violence are today represented onscreen has so influenced our perception and above all our feelings, that we are no longer capable of differentiating the content of these forms? Is the real value of the corpses of Grozny and Sarajevo equal to those of the make-believe victims in The Terminator?” Here he notes the important differences between real and mediated violence, and wants his own work to acknowledge the mediated to get closer to the real. Funny Games and Hidden are self-reflexive works, but the violence makes the audience more traumatised than many a violent event in an action film.

But is it also fair to ask Haneke to be as true to reasoning procedures as he insists filmmakers ought to be in relation to screen and real violence? Someone has clearly been sending tapes to the house, and if it hasn’t been Majid, nor his son, both of whom convincingly insist they haven’t, and seem finally to lack the reasons for doing so, then it would be too easy to say they have been the figments of Georges’ paranoiac imagination. It is one thing to say Georges denies reality, which the film astutely captures in the many lies Georges tells, quite another to claim that so deep is that denial the whole film has been a product of it. This is the terrain of Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, and surely Haneke isn’t interested in facile manipulation, or implausible peripeties – in implausible narrative reversals.

Antonioni opened film narrative up to multiple possibilities but the ending of The Passenger gives us several plausible options without making clear what happened to Locke. He could have committed suicide; though it is more likely the gun runners have caught up with him. But it is one thing for a filmmaker to keep the film ambiguous, quite another to leave the viewer without clues to the mystery it has evoked. The closing image in Hidden may have the two sons in the same shot, clearly talking to each other, but why they might be doing so is something we can only guess at. This is a great ending as it creates numerous levels of phenomenological ambiguity, but it is diluted by the vacuum slightly earlier in the film: the vacuum of the sent tapes, and the problem of where they have come from.

In the closing shot, Haneke works both narrative and perceptual mystery very interestingly. On the visual level we wonder who happens to be in the shot, and once we discern this we are still left wondering whether we are witnessing a point of view or even a point of view within the technological: that this may be the next tape Georges will receive. Here Haneke is playing fair with the questions he is asking, and one way of understanding this fairness/versus unfairness is to see what questions we are led to ask beyond the immediate diegetic unequivocalness: that the two boys are talking.

It is surely understandable that we would ask whose point of view, if anybody’s, this might be in the closing shot, and offer a few hypotheses: Georges’ or Anne’s, who are worried about their son and keeping an eye on him, or someone who will send the next tape? But beyond this, and going back to the narrative element the film sets in motion, if the latter, who might it be that is doing the recording? There has been no hint that Majid possesses friends personally involved or politically active enough to want to send Georges the tapes, nor that the son is involved in any political organisation, and though  Haneke is keen to point up links between Georges’ boyhood and the political events of that time, Jonathan Romney, in Sight and Sound, and others have understandably questioned these links. The culpability of Georges as a man is linked to those of Georges as a boy, just as the politics of the early sixties (where several hundred Algerian protestors were thrown into the Seine by the police and drowned) are linked to the events of that childhood.

There is, again, a certain sleight of hand here, with Georges’s actions as a child pertinent in the present only because Georges is presented as dislikeable. If he commits bad deeds as a child and happens to be selfish and dishonest in the present, does that make him more culpable than if he were horrible as a child and likeable now? If we think that happens to be the case then imagine how this would play out in a court of law, and how such instances cause us to question that law. Two children commit the same act in the distant past for which they have been untried, but one of them has been a decent and loving citizen as an adult; the other has consistently been a horrible human being. Should that impact on how they should be sentenced for the crime originally committed? It would be based on false moral inference: a bit like Camus’ Mersault in The Outsider being executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. What Georges did as a child was wrong; but what he does as an adult is wrong in a very different way, and is done by a very different Georges. It is again Haneke’s sleight of hand at work, where he asks us to commit to certain assumptions we might not be willing to make.

By the same reckoning, the connection between Georges’ sins of the past and France’s are also troublesomely inferred. Georges is the complacent white bourgeois in the present living in a salubrious flat while Majid lives in a rundown Paris apartment block. The young Georges was responsible for Majid’s removal from the family home, but can he really be held responsible for Majid’s present existence? Because we know so little about that life we are left to infer that Georges has been – there are no other elements offered for us to read it any other way, and to do so would be to arrive at pure speculation.

Let us return before concluding to the notion of the thriller, and the manner in which a thriller film is seen to cheat if, for example, it sets up eight possible suspects, and the crime was committed by a ninth who has had no presence in the film until his capturing. This isn’t too far removed from how Haneke ends Hidden. Undeniably a series of notes and tapes have been sent to Georges and his family, but it seems there is no plausible perpetrator of the action. If it wasn’t the half brother and his son, then who else is left? Georges’ son might resent his parents, but would he really send them tapes, and how would he have filmed them? There is no sense that he knows about Georges’ family past, no sense that Georges is the sort of person who would talk about it, and certainly not to his son. So who sent the tapes? Haneke might insist such a question is trivial next to the one concerning a general sense of bourgeois culpability in the face of immigrant disenfranchisement. Perhaps. But rather than aporias that create pressing questions, Haneke on this occasion has also created holes that resemble those of a half-plotted thriller, a court case where someone has been prejudicially tried, or an equation with a missing variable. It remains an important film, a great work on the unease of bourgeois entitlement once threatened, but we shouldn’t in the process of admiring the brilliance of this dissection ignore completely the unease of faulty reasoning that accompanies it.


©Tony McKibbin