Herald rating: * * * * *

Five years before his controversial and darkly brilliant The Piano Teacher attracted the attention of moral rights campaigners, Austrian-born Michael Haneke made a deeply disquieting masterpiece that was never cleared for general release.

Funny Games
, an excruciating anatomy of what was then popularly known as a home invasion, was also a searching and disturbing inquiry into the nature of violence - and of movies about it.

Haneke's new film is, by comparison, almost genteel, but it's also profoundly unsettling. The director articulates the questions that drove the other films: what is the difference between spectator and voyeur, between being complacent and being complicit?

Those questions are slapping us in the face by the end of the opening titles, when we realise that the five-minute establishing shot we have been watching is a videotape, being watched at the same time by the film's two main characters.

They are Georges and Anne Laurent (Auteuil and Binoche), a prosperous middle-class Parisian couple: he fronts a literary talk show, she is a publisher and their son (Makedonsky) is a promising swimmer. The video, a two-hour static shot of their house, has been delivered to their doorstep, followed by gory, childish drawings. The police decline to assist but slowly we become aware of a past that Georges has struggled to forget or to keep hidden.

To tease out more of this intricate puzzle would be to rob the film of its more chilling thriller elements. The mystery of the videotapes is solved in a sense, but not as in a simple whodunnit, because Haneke has much more than a story on his mind.

The film is plugged into historical events, specifically the "Black Night" of October 1961 when more than 200 pro-Algerian protesters were killed by Paris police. By extension, the West's attitude to Islam since September 11 comes under scrutiny. In a sense Haneke is interrogating the way that our comfort requires us to keep the oppression of others "hidden", and perhaps not only from ourselves.

But it's also an inquiry into the notion of film-watching. Footage becomes one of the film's characters. Thus the filmmaker crosses the line that separates him from his film and it's in this murky territory that the movie becomes most interesting. Is Haneke in the movie? And if so, where are we?

The long, endlessly discussed final shot on the steps of a school (the important action is in the top left-hand corner) may appear to raise more questions than it answers, but Haneke, who has written that his films "should not come to an end on screen", may well be insisting on this inconclusiveness. We may be the film's victims. We may be collaborators in the filmmaker's schemes. Either way, it's not comfortable. And it's not meant to be.

CAST: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Benichou, Lester Makedonsky
DIRECTOR: Michael Haneke
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
RATING: R16, violence and content may disturb
SCREENING: Rialto from Thursday