Cannes Diary IV: Heroes and Villains

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What is a hero? In Hollywood movies, and increasingly in political mythology, he is a man who represents untarnished good in a battle against uncomplicated evil. Ambiguity is forbidden when the sheriff of any traditional Western has a showdown with the rustler; the good guy shoots faster, straighter, deadlier. The exemplary BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, an official selection here at Cannes, observes that the favorite TV show of Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago professor whose political theories inspired the American neo-conservative movement, was Gunsmoke. Marshall Dillon was Strauss's idea of the iconic good guy, vanquisher of all who would challenge or subvert the American way.

In the type of European art film shown at Cannes, though, good and evil are relative terms. Blacks and whites change places, or shade into grays. In Hidden (Cache), the new film by Michael Haneke, the very notion of heroism is up for debate. A mysterious outsider is causing unease for a presumably decent Paris family—father Georges (Daniel Auteuil), his sympathetic wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) and their attractive 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). They receive surveillance videotapes of their home, and disquieting phone calls, and crude black-and-white, child-like drawings of a person with a crimson stream of blood spewing forth. The implications are vague but unmistakably threatening. The police, of course, are no help. As Georges says, they will do nothing "until he torches the place or a bomb goes off." So Georges must unearth the secret of these messages to find and defeat their sender.

In a Hollywood movie on the same theme, the hero would use his ingenuity and brute strength to best the unknown predator. This sort of fable has no lure for Haneke. He is more interested in showing that a victim, even one in the lead role of a thriller, does not always respond nobly. He who is wronged may also be wrong. The protagonist of the story need not be the hero, and act from motives not righteous but vindictive. The victim may become the aggressor, and when death inevitably arrives, it could be a slaughter of the innocent.

A visit to his mother (Annie Girardot) on the family estate reminds Georges of his youth in the early 60s and his relationship with Majid, the son of Algerian parents who worked on the estate. Majid's parents would lose their lives along with hundreds of other Algerians who were drowned in the Seine following the demonstrations of October 17, 1961. Jealous of the attention lavished on Majid after the death of his parents, young Georges lied about and conspired against the hapless child, which resulted in Majid being exiled to an orphanage. Forty years later, could Majid's resentment have festered into revenge against Georges and his family? Furtively, Georges pursues this intuition to confront the now-middle-aged Arab, with unforeseen and disastrous consequences.

An Austrian who makes films in his home country and in France, Haneke is a cinematic provocateur, a prankster with a cause. His first international success, Funny Games, showed intruders to a suburban manor visit all manner of indignities on the tormented occupants. The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, played out the theatrics of sexual sadomasochism in the relationship of a middle-aged woman and her precocious student. The Day of the Wolf imagined the survivors of a post-nuclear world falling into endless bickering over the spoils. People don't behave as they should, social order collapses, Haneke keeps saying, especially in times of stress.

The wounds of the Algerian war—France's Vietnam—reverberate in many recent French films. But there is another political undercurrent in Hidden. In the wake of last year's Palme d'Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11, we have been waiting for this year's critical take on U.S. foreign policy. The Power of Nightmares is certainly one of them: explicit, comprehensive, ultimately devastating in its amassing of historical facts. More covertly, Hidden has a similar agenda. No great leap of imagination is needed to see Haneke's hero as the French cousin of an American George (Bush) reacting to a threat on his homeland by launching a cleansing strike on an Arab nation.

Haneke, typically, makes none of this explicit. All judgments, all metaphors—indeed, the identity of the perpetrator—must be inferred. The mood is cool, the camera is as static and relentlessly unblinking as the surveillance videos. Spooky, with a nicely prowling, mounting sense of dread, Hidden suggests we don't have to look far to find bad guys. We could simply look into ourselves. There, we may see no hero. The victim could be the villain.