…for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.
In director Michael Haneke’s challenging film Jesus’ words to his disciples might not apply to the bourgeoisie Parisian couple Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche). The opening scene of the movie shows a quiet street fronted by a row house, and it is the couple’s voices that we hear commenting on it. Suddenly a fast forward alerts us that we are watching a video tape of their home, and they are puzzled why their home was videotaped for two hours and the results delivered to their door, accompanied by a childish drawing with a large red splotch of ink on it. More tapes arrive, with the drawings more ominously showing blood from a person and a chicken’s throat. The police say that they cannot step in because the sender has not included a threatening note.
The couple have a son about to enter his teens Pierrot Laurent (Lester Makedonsky), who gives them fits at times because of his thoughtlessness and desire for independence. The parents become more obsessive about him as the videotapes continue to arrive. In one of them, which ambles through the streets and then down the corridor of a cheap housing development, Georges is able to stop the tape and read a street sign. He follows the route, finds the building, and sees the same apartment door at which the maker of the tape has stopped. He knocks, and a man about his age opens, who recognizes Georges from having seen him hosting a literary discussion program on television. He reveals that he is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the son of Algerians who worked on Georges’s parents’ farm when they were both boys. Convinced that Majid is the one sending him the tapes, Georges becomes angry and threatening. Although it is clear to us that Majid is sincere in his denial, Georges is so self-centered that he cannot see beyond his fear and rage.
Georges has a bad dream: he is a boy watching another boy chop off the head of a chicken. It’s body flops around the courtyard (we recognize it as that of his boyhood home where his elderly mother still lives). The boy picks up the chicken and, menacingly approaching Georges, smears its blood on him. Only as the film and its mystery unfold do we grasp the significance of this dream. Georges returns to Majid’s apartment and accuses him again. He leaves after threatening the one whom we have learned was the child of Algerian servants of his family. The older Laurents had been very fond of the servants, so when the older Algerians had joined a group of demonstrators protesting the inhumane treatment of Algerians, and they had not returned, the Laurents had set out to find them. This was when on Oct. 17, 1961 the Parisian police had killed some 200 of the demonstrators and unceremoniously dumped many of the bodies into the Seine. The Laurents, never able to find their two servants, considered adopting Majid, but decided not to do so. Why we learn only after Georges, who had kept all this from his wife, finally opens up to her after she becomes upset by his secretiveness.
After a terribly shocking scene, the film ends without completely satisfying our desire to see the mysterious origin of the tapes (there is another one showing Georges and Majid talking during his first visit). There is a shot that seems to go on forever of Pierrot’s school, at which hundreds of students emerge and either walk down the steps (as we have seen before when Pierrot had been picked up by one of his parents) or stand in small groups talking. Be sure to watch this closely (preferably with a companion so that you can share both your confusion and insights!), as it is easy to miss the one figure who goes over to another and engages him in a conversation. I think this is the key to the solution that the director/writer refuses to give in a direct fashion.
Warning: Some of the questions might be spoilers, so you might want to wait to see the film before reading further.
1) How is this film different from the usual American mystery film? What does the lack of music actually add to the experience of watching the film?
2) How does the arrival of the tapes affect the relationships of the Laurent family? How does Georges secretive nature add to the deterioration of his relationship with Anna? What do they both read into what turns out to be an act of thoughtlessness (or rebellion?) on the part of their son?
3) What is it that Georges apparently has long suppressed? When he asks his Mother (Annie Girardot) why she and his father did not adopt Majid, what is her answer? Do you think she was truthful, or had she also repressed her guilt? How was your interpretation of the dream of Majid as a boy smearing blood on Georges changed by Georges’ later confession to his wife—that is, who was really provoked in that scene from the past?
4) Which do you believe is the worst, George’s guilt in slandering the boy, thus perhaps leading his parents to decide not to adopt the boy (and ruining the boy’s opportunity for a good education, the key to “the good life” in France), or the man’s refusal to own up to what he had done?
5) We did not bring into the review Walid Afkir (Majid’s son). What do you think his role is in the story?
6) European critics, who know far more about France’s treatment of Algerians during that North Africa country’s war for independence and its aftermath, see the film as a political allegory. How do you think it could be so seen as dealing with the guilt and memories that linger long after such a traumatic period? How might it apply even to the way in which the U.S. has treated Native Americans and African-Americans?