written and directed by Michael Haneke
Spoilers below! This is a 3-Frame-Review.
George Laurant (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurant (Juliette Binoche) live their bourgeois life in a townhouse in Paris. Their house is filled primarily with books – George hosts a TV show about literature, Anne is a publisher – and also with their 12 year old son, Pierrot, astonishingly played by Lester Makedonsky, who unfortunately never took another film role. As George puts it: „Mostly, we chug along. No great highs or lows. I’m fine. Anne’s fine. Pierrot’s fine. As far as I can tell, at least. We’re all very busy and that’s about it.“
One day, however, they find a video tape at their door, without any note. On the tape is a recording of the exterior of their house, for several hours. They receive more tapes, along with what appear to be children’s drawings of a head coughing blood. The peace and safety of their home is now in peril, but George has a suspicion who could be behind all that: Majid, the son of his parents‘ former Algerian farmhands, played by Maurice Bénichou. George’s parents wanted to adopt Majid after his parents died in the terrible Paris massacre of 1961. But six year old George didn’t want to share his home with another boy, so he successfully lied to prevent his parents from adopting him. Majid, of course, denies that he has anything to do with the tapes. Is he lying? If so, why is he sending the tapes? Or is his son (Walid Afkir) the culprit? We will never know, because the film doesn’t tell us. What appears to be a conventional thriller is actually a masterly conducted play with our expectations. And an essay on guilt.
Frame 1: 00:35:00
The first frame is a shot of George’s mother (played by the magnificent Annie Girardot), laying in her bed. She looks at George, who she has a conversation with. She still lives on their old farm property, alone except for a domestic aid. She seems to be quite ill and is therefor confined to her bed.
The conversation between her and George is quite insightful. They both seem very distant. Apparently they haven’t seen each other in quite a while. George is surprised to see his mother so sick. He states that he is worried about her, asks her, if she feels alone. But apart from that he can’t find anything to talk about. He just blabbers, while his mother looks at him, unmoved like we see her in this frame. The reason George visits his mother in the first place is his suspicion about Majid. He wants to talk about Majid. At first she seems not to remember, then states that she never thinks about Majid at all. „It was a long time ago.“, she says. „And it’s not a happy memory.“
As I saw it, she and George’s father are guilty of what happened to Majid. Yes, George told a horrible lie, but he was a child, children do stupid things. They were the responsible adults who sent Majid away to the orphanage, because of a statement their son made. But somehow the guilt seems to stick with George, he is troubled by it, he is the haunted one. The mother just rejects any guilt by suppressing the memory. Maybe she has to.
Of course, there is the mention of the massacre in 1961, which is justifiably seen as a national, collective crime against the Algerians. So what we are supposed to think about is, how we deal with the guilt of such a crime as a collective. The generation responsible, the mother, just denies any guilt. The young generation, who were still children when it happened, they feel guilty. But the film shows yet another generation. This scene has a counterpart later into the film, when Anne talks to Pierrot, her and George’s son. He is angry at her, he makes vague accusations, but doesn’t clarify. He rebuffs his mother quite harshly and Anne is not able to communicate with him. She can’t reach him with her words. This is the same dynamic as in this scene with George and his mother. The question is: How does the guilt effect the third generation, who were born decades later? In what way is guilt passed on through the generations?
Frame 2: 00:52:00
This is a shot of Majid in his flat when being confronted by George. The flat stands in stark contrast to the house of the Laurants, who have very much space, everything is clean, tidy. Majid, however, sits in a rundown room which in fact are several rooms combined into one: kitchen, dining room, living room, laundry room. The Laurants have separate rooms for all that. What we can see here is the dimension of class which comes along with the dimension of culture or race. The white family is also rich, while the Majid’s family is poor. And maybe this causes even more guilt in George. He sees himself as being responsible for Majid’s life. If his parents had adopted Majid, he too would have had access to their wealth. But George prevented that.
Majid himself appears to be a nice guy. He is very friendly, in contrast to George who is very aggressive and threatens Majid. Majid appears in only two more scenes and these three are all we get to judge his character, to judge whether he sent the videos or not. This is too few to judge a character and that is what I think we are supposed to learn from this film. He seems sympathetic and innocent. After this scene we see him cry for quite a long time. He is the victim, he is the one who really suffered. And this is important to remember: It is not George who suffers, it is Majid.
Frame 3: 01:40:00
And here we have a shot of Majid’s son. What is his role in all this? We don’t really get to know him, but at the end of the film he approaches George to confront him. About what remains unknown, because George gets very upset due to his mere presence. Majid’s son is in contrast to his father very well groomed. His collar is straight, while his father’s in frame two is distorted. He wears a proper shirt, his hair is very neat and he has very good manners. The last he has in common with his father. He speaks about his education, which his father made an effort to finance. And he says to George: „I wondered how it feels, a man’s life on your conscience. That’s all. Now I know.“ He is able to see through George, to see through his attitude and dismantle his feelings of guilt.
George asks: „Do you expect me to apologize?“ And he replies: „To whom? Me?“ And this is a central question of the film. Is it possible to apologize to the younger generation for the injustices done to the older generation? Or, to rephrase it: Is it possible for the younger generation to apologize to the even younger generation? Can we make peace, although our ancestors are long since dead? What do we do with all that guilt, where does it go? I think, the film is justifiably pessimistic. George will feel guilty for the rest of his life, and maybe his son will, too, and Majid and his son will suffer for the rest of their lives. And all that we do about it is hide the guilt.