Jeff and I saw this together last night. We walked in as fans of director Michael Haneke, and walked out with that adoration confirmed, if not exuberantly so–I think it was a strong, smart, challenging film, if not quite the equal of his finest (Time of the Wolf). So it is highly recommended, and I think we both want to puzzle over its objectives and accomplishments.
That said, it is also a film best discussed after viewing, and I don’t want to disrupt any of the pleasures of the text by giving away this or that–you can’t really start addressing without naming, so I’ll avoid explicit spoilers but can’t sidestep certain specifics.
The plot in brief: a bourgeois/intellectual French couple start receiving anonymous videotapes, long shots of the outside of their home (or other locations). No explicit message, no clear purpose–just long motionless shots. They are initially discomforted, and their anxiety increases exponentially as more tapes are received. The film develops a palpable dread, as it riffs through potential purposes for and meanings of the tapes.
I’m most interested in the problem of what is being “hidden” and what the tapes are ostensibly revealing. The film’s conclusion is opaque, suggestive rather than definitive–and invites a return to obsessive analysis and explication of the film.
An obvious answer seems to be a hidden history–a national cover-up of the massacre of Algerians in Paris, and a personal subterfuge by husband Daniel Auteuil about his displacement of an orphaned Algerian boy living with his family. Yet it could as easily be a psychological unravelling, as Auteuil’s shame slowly ripples up and reveals the falsity of his life and his self-deceptions. Or… you get the picture; the videos emerge as ripe metaphors for a variety of takes (ahem) on what might be hidden. But there is a tendency to read the tapes as provocations which reveal, as mechanisms for exposing whatever is hidden. And this seems to fit into a sense of the long shot in film theory–it’s Bazin, right, who imagined that film in the absence of cutting/editing reveals most complexly the fullness of life? Film is literalized as a revelatory mechanism, as a force for unveiling a reality we try to cover up….
…but I don’t really buy that. Those long shots are not revelations but screens; the final shot–with its ambiguous suggestion of other agendas, other meanings–returns us to the central problem: what on earth sense do we make of these shots? I am leaning toward an idea that, whether taken in one allegorical frame (racism, bourgeois intellectualism, psychology) or simply as a formal meta-reflection, film acts a field onto which we project those things we conceal, cover up, try to escape… but is itself resistant to the concreteness or conclusiveness of reality.
That’s real fuzzy and ambiguous, and the film actually isn’t–what I love about its impact is how sometimes maddeningly quotidian its aesthetic and narrative are. In other words, it ain’t a dreamy figurative film, but instead tends toward documentarian impulses, ostensibly recording rather than reconfiguring. I know, I know–that’s paradoxical. But I think that’s why I found it so gripping: its tools for exposing the blankness of ‘meaning’ in film are the very devices often touted as potentially revelatory and liberatory in form and function. The film uses realism as a tool for unravelling the possibility of realism, yet (ironically) does so to resist the fantasies and concealments film often encourages or engenders.
Lots of alliteration, to go along with the ambiguity. Sorry; the movie does seem to prompt a turn toward wishy-washy nouns. I would rather that a few people see it and start fighting over the finale, or other scenes. But for now this little goad. Jeff?