- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

As I sit down before my computer to write this review, alone in my apartment, I can concentrate on collecting my thoughts on one of the year’s best films because I’m confident nobody is watching.

And when you, dear reader, sit down to read it, nobody is watching you, either.

Are they?

Voyeurism has been at the heart of the movie experience since the first silent film images gave us a window to peep through; since the first iris shot mimicked the keyhole. But being on the other side of the window or the keyhole is about as unsettling an experience as exists. Remember how near the end of “Rear Window” Raymond Burr breaks the fourth wall to look into the camera (i.e., at Jimmy Stewart, at us)? The new French thriller “Hidden” is a film about that moment when we see that “they” are watching us.

“Hidden” centers on a French haute bourgeois couple. Daniel Auteuil plays Georges, the host of a TV program that looks a bit like a French “Firing Line.” His wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) keeps a perfect home. They have every clean-scrubbed gadget. And one son. They have it all.

The film opens with a shot of their home that, in dramatic terms, lasts far too long while nothing happens. But, like a symphony overture, the shot — its static quality and unending length — isn’t about drama. Instead, it establishes a mood — one of unease, paranoia until … we find out what the shot is.

We’re viewing a tape sent to the couple anonymously. No explicit threats. No hostage demands. Just a tape of their home. More tapes arrive later, accompanied by childish crayon drawings of things with a meaning too opaque to follow.

Opaque to us, that is, but not to Georges, who thinks he knows who “they” are. However, he can’t (or won’t) tell Anne, and the tension starts to rise.

There are references to the Algerian war and the current racial tensions in France. (“Hidden” was made before the recent rioting, but it’s impossible not to think about it now in that context.) And then one day, their perfect son goes missing, and like Harry Caul madly ripping up his apartment at the end of “The Conversation,” the couple rip their lives apart.

Director Michael Haneke is the medium’s greatest current master, as controlling, sadistic and manipulative as Alfred Hitchcock. So Mr. Haneke is a man worthy of making a kind of “Rear-Window”-in-reverse thriller. One shot — a death scene — is among the most jarring I’ve ever seen. With a large, sympathetic audience, you can feel everyone jump out of their seats in unison from sheer, sudden shock.

One technical note: “Hidden” was shot on high-definition video but looks as good and unvideo-ish as any film shot on 35mm. This is historic, a sign that the technical issues involving video vs. celluloid have been overcome. As one friend put it, “Oh well, celluloid had a good run.”

The last shot, of some pupils milling about after school, is in the tradition of those “What does it mean?” endings from the ‘60s like the tennis match in “Blow Up” or the last section of “2001.” Only Mr. Haneke goes Michelangelo Antonioni and Stanley Kubrick one better: It’s debatable whether whatever happens in that shot ultimately matters at all. Arguably, the last shot is just one more red herring, speaking more to whether we have the need to give the movie definitive closure, to finally make it all make sense. It’s one more key that promises to open the locked door, so we can see what is hidden.

Or is it?

****

TITLE: “Hidden”

RATING: R (brief strong violence)

CREDITS: Directed and written by Michael Haneke. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.sonyclassics.

com/cache/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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