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At the Movies: Hidden

Where would I be without French movies? Probably sitting at home reading The Decline of the West, while down at the local cinema you can actually see Spengler’s scenario being enacted—and brilliantly enacted—before your very eyes.

Hidden is the work of a gifted film director, Michael Haneke. The plot is deliberately shifty, with false trails and loose ends that never get tidied up, but basically it’s a variation of Rosebud and Citizen Kane. Boy is deprived of parental love. Boy never forgets. Boy seeks vengeance many years later—Spengler getting into the story because of all the colonial connections, a revenge theme involving Algeria, and the peculiar form of incendiary barbarism now common in metropolitan France. Being a view from the Left, it also features the usual mordant portrayal of French middle-class life as cold, alienating, and pointless.

But it’s very well done. As a youngster, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) was the villain who long ago did the wicked childhood deed, cruelly expelling an Algerian boy from his adopted home into an orphanage. Maybe that’s enough to severely twist one’s mind: anyway director Michael Haneke seems to think so, and thirty years later it’s payback time for the Algerian, a poor and rumpled banlieu inhabitant named Majid. He has videotapes of Georges’ house delivered anonymously to Georges, to his wife (Juliette Binoche), to his son at school, tapes accompanied by ugly drawings of a face vomiting blood, the whole thing menacing and ambiguous in the extreme. And before long the lives of TV chat-show host Georges, his cool wife (Juliette Binoche), and his son, begin to unravel.

But maybe Majid didn’t make the anonymous tapes or draw their gory accompanying pictures. Maybe his son did. Maybe nobody did—it’s that sort of plot, and though the nervous inquiry into what is actually going on keeps you on the edge of your seat, some would say it’s too clever by half. When Georges tracks down Majid to a squalid and untidy flat, and accuses him of attempted extortion, Majid cuts his own throat in Georges’ presence—it makes a bloody mess all over the wall—an act incomprehensible as anything other than desperate, suicidal, spite.

Though of course the intended political implications are all about France’s colonial sins. According to the story told by director Haneke there was a demonstration of Algerians in Paris in October 1961 when Majid’s parents died, allegedly thrown into in the Seine. The drowned mother and father had been immigrant farmhands on Georges’ parents’ estate: that’s why the latter felt obliged to adopt Majid. But the trail of guilt goes on and on and on. Much earlier there’d been the occupation of Algeria by the French in the 19th century. So step by historical step, invisible but implied, is a moral tale of colonial oppression, of Algerian innocence, and of unmistakable French culpability, leading all the way from General Clausel’s bombardment of Algiers in 1830 to the riots in the banlieux today.

Film directors on the Left need to be closely watched. It is of interest that Hidden presents as “history” the deaths of 200 in a demonstration on October 17, 1961, most by drowning. I understand there is no mention of this in Alistair Horne’s well-known book about the Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace.

The French-language paper El Moudjahid, published in Tunis at the time by the Algerian Provisional Government, reports October demonstrations three times however, once on November 1st, and twice on November 22nd. The November 1st report is in an article “The October Days”. This describes 80,000 demonstrators being attacked by police and gendarmes, unprovoked police firing at 20.45 hours, and dead bodies on sidewalks. It makes no mention of drownings or the number of casualties.

On November 22 the first report criticizes “The Silence of the Left” and while it describes police violence, again makes no reference to either drownings or the number of casualties. The second November 22 report in El Moudjahid is by a participant in the demonstration and has the title “Escaped from Drowning”. A 20-year-old Algerian tells how he was arrested; how he saw a fellow-demonstrator beaten up and thrown into a river; and how he escaped the same fate.

My highly reliable source for this information informs me that “El Moudjahid, a monthly, was full of reports both of Algerian demos and of French repression. From Tunis they were in constant telephonic contact with France. Had there been a mass drowning, or massacre on October 17, this would have been given enormous prominence.” Instead what we find in its pages is mention of one man thrown into a river, and someone else escaping. In other words the “200 drowned demonstrators” would seem to be a largely hearsay episode serving the propagandist purposes of director Haneke.

The French characters in Hidden are generally cold and unsympathetic, as civilized and literate members of the bourgeoisie always must be in moral tales of this kind—Haneke’s contribution to a genre of French historical appeasement that Oswald Spengler would recognize easily enough (all of it part of Europe’s death wish) though as an aesthete of severely demanding taste he might have found the gratuitousness of the suicide uncalled for.

But that the French, for all their artistic gifts, should now be governed by a directionless élite incapable of dealing with the marching armies of exotic enragés they and their ancestors blindly conjured into being; that their leaders should find themselves taking refuge in the gilded Parisian redoubts of the Gallic state… Well, the impending decline and fall of Jacques Chirac and Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin does seem fitting enough.

Schadenfreude however is not an attractive sentiment. And I’d be sorry if Haneke (an Austrian by the way) got his own throat cut one day. If Juliette Binoche got hers cut it would be downright sad. We need them around making films—however politically misconceived.

Posted in Artists And Politics, Notes.

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