Nothing is happening. A camera is focused on a house in a middle class Parisian residential area. Passers-by. Occasionally, cars drive down the street. A man leaves the house. The camera simply registers the scene, without any movement – as if someone, behind the camera, is waiting for something to happen. Only, nothing happens. The longer the scene lasts, the more curious we get: why does the camera seem to be observing the house? Who is doing it? Why? And what’s going to happen?Nothing is happening. A camera is focused on a house in a middle class Parisian residential area. Passers-by. Occasionally, cars drive down the street. A man leaves the house. The camera simply registers the scene, without any movement – as if someone, behind the camera, is waiting for something to happen. Only, nothing happens. The longer the scene lasts, the more curious we get: why does the camera seem to be observing the house? Who is doing it? Why? And what’s going to happen?
Michael Haneke’s film, undoubtedly his most watchable in quite a while, has elements of a thriller. Suspense dominates the atmosphere from the very beginning. The question of ‘whodunit’ keeps the viewer’s interest alive. And this is the story. The observation of the house from across the street shows up, in the form of a tape, on the doorstep of the middle class family. The man, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), has a popular literary show on television; his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), works in a publishing company; they have a son, Pierrot, 12. They have, at a first glance, a good, comfortable and harmonious family life. They have jobs, they have a circle of amiable friends. And they have a nice apartment, stuffed with books and with all the stylish accessoires that belong to bourgeois life these days. Note how well-tended and cultured the production designer (Emmanuel de Chauvigny) shows this neighborhood. Later on, we’ll understand that it is this milieu which Michael Haneke wishes to hit.
For the time being, we’re still in the video-thriller. The tape lying on the doorstep irritates the couple. It doesn’t make any sense to them. Nor does it to us and, on top of that, Michael Haneke loves to rattle us by mixing scenes shot by his camera with scenes shot by the video camera in the movie (perfect technically). Several days later, other tapes arrive. They show a surprising familiarity, even intimacy with the family and in particular with Georges and his (unspectacular and ordinary) past. Both Georges and his wife become increasingly insecure. They phone the police, but as there has been no attempt at blackmail or even a threat, the police can’t do anything. So they have to solve the mystery themselves. Both get more and more nervous, panic and are finally thrown off the track. Their bourgeois façade slowly breaks down.
And the ending? Is there a solution to the mystery thriller? If there were, this wouldn’t be a Michael Haneke film. He goes far beyond the thriller. He questions the way the protagonists see themselves. He uses the camera as a sensor which he inserts deep into the complacency of modern Western middle class society. We soon guess that there is no one at all behind the tapes (and only commercial distributors may be disappointed that the ‘whodunit’ is never answered). It’s a beautiful trick allowing him to penetrate the bourgeois surface of the family, and if Haneke weren’t so cool, analytical and superserious, this trick could have been an elegant and playful invention of Bunuel’s.
How does Haneke arrive at the depths of bourgeois existence? With a simple, convincing ‘inner monologue’, Georges starts wondering if he possibly might have offended or hurt someone who is now taking revenge. He starts feeling guilty without any concrete reason why (which makes him even more aggressive). In his memory, he even flashes back to his childhood (Annie Girardot has a wonderful cameo as his mother) to the year 1961, at the height of the French war in Algeria and the repression against Algerians living in France. The tapes also contain references to a family of Algerian immigrants who had worked for his parents, and which now lead to the immigrants’ son, who is the same age as Georges, who also lives in Paris, and who may have sent the tapes as late revenge for the injustice he and his family had to suffer. This is how Georges sees it (which leads to terrible consequences, including a murder), but by this point we realize that Michael Haneke is not referring to personal guilt but to the repressed guilt of France to Algeria, of the first world to the third world, of the rich to the poor, of the winners to the victims.
One could describe this as a well-behaved bow to the country in which Michael Haneke made his film. One could also say that Michael Haneke is dealing with a chapter of French colonialism that needs to be re-evaluated. One could also say that he is dealing with a social class that should be asking itself at whose expenses it is leading its rather luxurious life. That’s all in the film. In a broader context, of course, Michael Haneke is referring to the lacking social consciousness of the entire Western world and its middle class – regardless of whether it’s Algeria or something else (we all have enough skeletons in the cellar). We all have reasons to feel bad about failings, as unconscious or under-conscious as they may be. Michael Haneke lays this bare. He does it in a film of cold and even icy beauty – without the slightest pity or mercy. His film shows the connection between affluence and historical and social thoughtlessness, between guilt and suppression – attitudes that are symptomatic of contemporary Western societies.
In no other recent film has the way Western society sees itself been questioned so daringly, rigorously and pitilessly. Michael Haneke is true his reputation as a precise critic and analyst of society.