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Eyes Wide Shut: of politics in French cinema, and more specifically in Michael Haneke’s Hidden

, by @Alfred, Nico Melanine

A few months after it came out in France, Michael Haneke’s Hidden is coming out in England. A good opportunity to watch it and possibly make up my own mind on Haneke’s cinema. A good opportunity to digress on the connections between art and politics and assert that no, what the anglo-saxon world calls “Postcolonial Studies” has no equivalent in France.

Hidden is both interesting and a rather bad movie. Interesting for the analogy it makes between the post-colonial situation in France, because the same way he questions the main character’s guilty past, Haneke explores the collective guilt of France in regards to Algeria since decolonization. Rather bad, for about everything else.

The much-lauded thriller side of this movie does not hold water. Haneke struggles to create tension, and his repeated, long motionless shots of the Paris middle class house make no difference. We’re supposed to see something in them, to make out “hidden”details, we are told. Some critics even talk about an “insane presence, a swarming of violence.” [1] when Haneke’s motionless shots reach the poetic brilliance of Ozu’s, I’ll go see his movies. In the meantime I’ll abstain from it, thank you very much. As for finding potential hidden elements-abstract or not-in those shots, it’s starting to sound like intellectual hackery. It all looks more like “Find the 7 differences” than a Directing Award at the Cannes Festival. This impression is confirmed with the last scene in the movie, a final motionless shot in which the children of the two main characters can be seen from afar sitting on the steps of a school, talking, possibly exchanging something. There would be a hidden element here that might upset the meaning we give to the movie. This time it’s clear, this movie is a Disney-type whodunit, and if you flip over the magazine you’ll see that the Beagle Boys did it, because a banknote is sticking out of their pocket on page 4. Look closer. That’s right.

Let’s go over the criticism of left-wing intelligentsia, the "bobos" represented by the couple Auteuil/Binoche. Seeing how much the said milieu appreciated the movie can only mean that the treatment of this aspect is not very strong either. Haneke might denounce Auteuil’s materialism and his clinging to the reputation he’s made in some circles, at the end of the day, the movie is a product designed for these same righteous, culture-loving circles. Hidden represents what it denounces and reaches a refined form of harmless critique, the kind that lets good middle class citizens laugh at their own situation and happily bask in it in the same movement.

I will also mention the postmodern and vaguely structuralist aspect of the movie that consists in playing with the movie as movie, through the anonymous videotapes that we get to watch with the couple they are sent to, with the movie. Mise en abyme, movie in the movie, you know, all that. “Who is filming?” ask just about everybody, with the satisfaction of those who can read between the lines of a coded message (whose code, is of course, unknown...). The process, if used in a slightly more subtle way than in Funny Games (in which -need this terrible moment in cinema be recalled- a character grabbed a remote to rewind the actual movie reel!), is still an easy one, and only reveals a certain emptiness.

Almost nothing...

What is truly fascinating about this, methinks, is that critiques are much less verbose when it comes to the political aspects of this movie than when they’re dealing with its aesthetic and artistic pretentions. The analogy between Daniel Auteuil’s character-who in his youth managed to have the Algerian orphan greeted by his parents rejected and ultimately sent to the social services-and the way France treats the immigrants from its former colonies is next to never commented on in the cinema magazines and newspapers that have reviewed the film.
The sole vaguely original aspect of this movie is therefore barely mentioned by a majority of official commentators, when it is not completely ignored. Nobody seems to think it an opportunity to question France’s collective consciousness, its handling-or lack thereof-of post-colonial immigration and the way it still treats, or avoids treating, the subject. For what is striking in Auteuil’s character is precisely his lack of remorse, 30 to 40 years after the fact. He tries to evacuate the question, and when he is finally confronted to the problem, he tries again, persists in his behavior, and refuses to reconsider his role in the matter. What is revolting is not so much the attitude he had in the past as the way he treats the question in the present, the way he treats the grown-up orphan and his son. What is regrettable is the denial, his refusal to accept responsibility, and his stubbornness in trying to exonerate himself by all means necessary. It is first and foremost this attitude, in the present, that will drive the orphan to suicidal behavior.

This is what is interesting in Haneke’s movie; it shows how the denial of a story, probably more than the story itself, has repercussions on the present, creates conflicts and makes more victims.

In times of colonial rehabilitation, when racist and discriminatory laws are voted, in times when the media dabbles in hypocritical provocations and members of parliament and state agents alike insult and attack all that has to do with Islam, on the eve of a state of urban upheaval that for being mostly due to social factors, nevertheless concerns immigrants from decolonization and their descendents, since they have been the main target of decades of planned urbanism, in such times, it seems like it would have been relevant to comment on the analogy. But nothing, or next to nothing, as Luc Ferrari would have said.

No wonder there is nothing in France like what Anglos call Postcolonial Studies. what is revealed in the inertia of cinema critique is the cosmic emptiness that surrounds the colonial question, and that spreads into academia. In France, past and present, cultural and political interactions between European nations and the countries they colonized in the Modern era are not officially studied.
Let it be said once and for all.

Hidden is also one of the rare movies that I have seen that mentions the events on October 17th 1961. They are mentioned in passing, but the reference is there: on that day, a peaceful Algerian demonstration in Paris was crushed on orders from police chief (and former collaborationist) Papon. Some 300 Algerians will be thrown in the Seine. On that day, the orphan in the movie lost his parents. It seems quite meaningful that a foreign director would be one of the first (that I know of) to mention this historical fact in a work of fiction. Those who make a living out of critiquing movies do not seem to share my view.

In the Heart of Darkness

The treatment of the event by Haneke echoes the ways in which the war in Algeria was approached in some of the movies made right after decolonization. I emphasize "some", for movies about the war or mentioning it were but a few at the time.

On this subject France sets clearly apart from a country like the United States, which very soon tried to evacuate the trauma of the Vietnam war through image, and did so spectacularly, if in fundamentally patriotic ways. Most of the movies on this subject (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Jacob’s Ladder, The Deer Hunter, for the best) have a common point in that they deal with their subject exclusively from the American point of view. The Vietnam war is always only presented as a painful experience for the U.S. army. The global point of view is never mentioned, much less the Vietnamese’s. Edward Said’s literary analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is very much relevant in this case [2]. These movies do not reflect experiences in the Vietnam war; they are a representation, a politicized and ideological production of the conflict.

The difference with the way France has approached the Algeria war has probably to do with quality and quantity. If comparatively there are fewer movies on the Algeria war than on the Vietnam war, the subjects have also been treated differently. In France, beyond the very heavy and spectacular Battle of Algiers by the Italian director Pontecorvo, the subject has barely been touched, and when it has it’s usually been met with dead silence. In France, we do not talk about the Algeria war. This state of things is very well illustrated in Adieu Philippine by the great Jacques Rozier, where characters lower their heads at the mere mention of the conflict, or in Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai, whose main feat is to make a documentary two months after the Evian peace agreements, without any of the interviewees being able to say anything explicitly about the end of the Algeria war. The French seem unable, or unwilling, to evacuate the trauma. A form of self-censorship is at play, that has worked relentlessly in blocking all critical representation of the Algeria war, or of colonialism in its entirety, in French cinema. René Vautier comes to mind, whose movie Afrique 50, a virulent pamphlet and the first anti-colonialist movie, was banned and confiscated by French authorities. Vautier, who remains the only person to film the Algeria war from the Algerian side, will then be sent to prison, and will encounter the worst difficulties to finance his film projects, among which the emblematic To be Twenty in the Aures.

Establishing a parallel between Haneke’s treatment of the October 17th massacre and the complete absence of debate that followed in newspapers and cinema magazines is interesting. It shows the kind of relation France and the French entertain with their history. Quite tellingly, critics act as the interviewees in Marker’s documentary, as Rozier’s and Haneke’s characters. They avoid all references to the massacre and avoid the analogy with the political situation in France, as once references to the Algeria war were avoided.
Well, you have to give it to them poor folks, they’re slightly conditioned. There is indeed a two-fold tradition in France that consists on the one hand, in never questioning oneself, and on the other hand to never mix art and politics.

Don’t Look Back

“We have to do away with constant repentance” recently declared Nicolas Sarkozy, French Minister of the Interior, without anybody pointing at the implications of this statement. The idea is very clear though: France, homeland of Enlightenment and human rights, does not apologize. And when she could look back, she’d rather keep her eyes wide shut. Rather than exploring her past at home, she’d rather give moral lessons abroad, to all those countries that do not know the sacred values of democracy and freedom of speech, for whom France is the sole rampart. These countries are easy to recognize, by the way, for most of them they form the “Muslim world.”

This type of behavior gave us the puzzling and almost unanimous reaction to the election of Hamas in Palestine. No matter the local corruption, no matter the situation deteriorating with a state of Israel growing more authoritarian every day, no matter that the elected party abandoned its original aggressive platform, no matter that this election was deemed flawless by foreign observers, it seems the Palestinians elected the wrong people. No matter that their attempts at negotiations were always scorned, no matter what concessions Arafat accepted in his time, he was always an obstacle to peace, the same way poor old Sharon -the free media will vouch for it- was always a champion of peace. Palestinian democracy is not France’s, and therefore it is unacceptable.

We could also mention the caricatures of Muhammad, the most recent manifestation of hypocrisy and scorn from the France of human rights. If this time around politicians have remained relatively measured in their words, the media have gone all out in their favorite exercise: to sell, with anything that’s loud or flashy enough. The moral lesson was about freedom of speech this time, for satire’s sake, and it was the deed of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly that lately has seemed to turn from its original left-wing irreverence towards islamophobic conservatism. As I was saying recently to a friend, satire is supposed to expose the vices of the time. Publishing caricatures that spread a dumb, simplistic and racist doxa seems contradictory and useless. But manipulating freedom of speech and claiming to defend it in the name of despicable ideologies is also a tradition in France, as well as in other developed countries. As the always excellent Paul Gilroy notes in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, the same argument was used in the UK in the 70s and 80s so that British people could insult Blacks and immigrants in all good conscience. Anti-racist movements and politicians were then considered a “sinister attempt to first curb and then destroy freedom of speech [3]." In France, in a different style, the same concept was heartily manipulated as revealed the always essential René Vautier. Some 30 years after being banned, and after some tried to destroy the last reels of the movie, Afrique 50 is now being shown in embassies and French cultural centers abroad in order to show the world how well France accepts criticism, and holds freedom of speech in high regard. Propaganda and manipulation...

A critique of separation

Western philosophy tells us that a work of art is meant to be gratuitous and should not contain any kind of message. Art exists for art’s sake, the wise tell us. It is an object distinct of all other activities, that could not suffer base material considerations. These ideas are rooted deeply in French and Western mentalities, that tend to aesthetize and dilute all attempts at political significance in art.
In France, for example, Guy Debord has often been reduced to a “dandy writer” in whose works “ethics are reduced in aesthetics.” Authorized commentators provided a final sentence in the form of an epitaph: “All that remains of him is literature.” [4] Considering a writer such as Thomas Pynchon in the U.S., and the reception of his books by critics brings us to a similar conclusion. In a great majority of cases, the subversive and political aspects underlying his writings are kept in the background, considered a form of aesthetism and exclusively analyzed stylistically, when they’re not completely ignored. The association between politics and literature is a problem. There should be no connection between the two, except in the case of unrepentant militant writers. This is what Arundhati Roy realizes with surprise when she is called an “activist-writer”: “Nowadays, I am introduced as something of a freak myself. I am, apparently, what is known in twenty first century vernacular as a writer-activist (like a sofa-bed). Why am I called a writer-activist [...] and why does that make me flinch?” [5]

This shows the type of mental predisposition that leads a man like Vautier to be considered original and marginal, not to say rejected and excluded. His cinema, often considered abusively politicized (and not in a consensual way) has always been kept at bay. He is at best always kept in a category of his own, and often ignored. When Les Cahiers du Cinéma offer special dossiers on the Algeria war in cinema or on politics in cinema -thus showing how the norm tends to be apolitical cinema- Vautier is not even mentioned. Essential Vautier? Not for the Cahiers...

Art and politics really do not go well together, it seems, especially not in France, where tradition has it that creation and research are hermetically sealed and exclusive, with no communication between the two. As the concept of Postcolonial Studies is nonexistant in France, that of Cultural Studies that mixes different fields and activities by situating and analyzing cultural practices in their global, social, historical and political contexts has no equivalent in France either. We don’t mix apples and oranges.

Where others propose works of art I pretend only to show my spirit

Movie critique evolves in the same intellectual conceit, and as the reaction to Haneke’s film shows, perpetuates the tradition with remarkable devotion.

But maybe our critics have understood the movie after all, maybe they did grasp its substance, if we believe Haneke. In interviews about the movie we learn that the analogy with the Algeria war was indeed added late in the shoot, and that the movie was originally lacking the political comment. If this late addition is not a problem per se, it nevertheless seems clear that if Haneke had not seen the Arte documentary on the October 17th massacre, the symbolic dimension of his movie would have been considerably reduced, limited to a study of the individual guilt of a family man, and a mild critique of French left-of-center intelligentsia. One can wonder if the political commentary is instrumentalized, exploited to aesthetic or symbolic ends, a pose rather than a statement. It can be seen as yet another trick used by Haneke to make his movie look complex without actually caring about its underlying meaning.
Haneke’s words on the choice of Auteuil as the main character tend to confirm the impression. What seems like judicious casting -Auteuil’s fame and popularity making it easier for spectators to identify themselves to him and recognize themselves in his latent racism- is mere professionalism. Haneke chose Auteuil because he’s a good actor. Period.
To end on Haneke’s political sincerity, we will mention that he really likes Houellebecq, and declares living in the same world as the controversial French author. Not that surprising, if he refers to the world of manipulation Houellebecq lives in...

Haneke’s film does not clarify or purify the ambiguous relation between art and politics in France. In spite of appearances, Hidden seems yet another product of the hypocrisy typical of France on this subject.
All quiet under the Aures sun, then.
To be continued...

Footnotes

[1Libération movie critic Gérard Lefort, personal translation.

[2In Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

[3There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Routledge Classics, 2000. p.313. Quote from The Sun, 10/24/85.

[4In Pour Debord, references unavailable to me as of now.

[5Excerpt from The Ladies Have Feelings, So... Shall We Leave it to the Experts?, talk given at Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass., in February 2001.