Monday, January 30, 2006

"Caché": Guilt, lies, and videotape


directed and written by Michael Haneke
starring Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche

Time is out of joint from the very outset of “Caché”—and nothing that follows is intended to set it right. The film opens with a static shot of an unremarkable apartment building from an unremarkable residential street in Paris. There are few passersby, and no activity of any significance. A man emerges from the building, perhaps on his way to work. After a beat, perhaps, we may notice something slightly peculiar about the angle and vantage point of the shot, and something vaguely disconcerting about its utter stillness. What are we watching, and with whom are we watching it? Voices break the silence—the voices of the watchers? Yes, but not in the ordinary sense. The picture freezes and rewinds. We have been watching a video tape with the film’s protagonists. It is their building, and their movements to and from the building, that constitute the subject of the video.

That neat little trick sets the stage for the rest of “Caché,” and is one of the few instances in which director Michael Haneke actually tips his hand. At almost no other point can we ever be entirely sure whether what we’re seeing is surveillance footage or an action occurring in the movie’s present time. This highly deliberate ambiguity, by which the film keeps the audience perpetually off balance—never quite certain whether they’re positioned with the voyeur or the voyeur-ed—mirrors the shifting sympathies and expectations that attend the characters passing in front of the camera.

For at first we seem to be witnessing a particularly creepy form of stalking and harassment, an act of motiveless, possibly unhinged malice directed at a defenseless family. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), along with their adolescent son Pierrot, are both the subjects and the recipients of the videotapes, which reveal not only that someone is watching them, but that that someone has managed to gain access to their most private spaces and conversations. They also begin to receive drawings of stick figures in postures of bloody violence, crude sketches that are as unsettling as they are childish. Nonetheless, the police do not perceive a sufficiently direct threat to take any real action, and so the Laurents are left to marinate in their own growing fear and paranoia.

So far, so good. But the film begins to drop hints that the Laurents are not quite the innocent victims they seem. The very title of the movie is another tip-off that the source of the tapes is not the only thing, by a long shot, that’s managed to remain hidden from view. (It would have been supremely cheesy, but also fairly appropriate, to give “Caché” the tag line, “Everyone has something to hide.”) Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of melodramatically shady past that a Hollywood movie—or even a Hollywood-parodying movie like David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”—would throw in as its idea of a dark secret. No, the Laurents are very much what they appear to be in terms of class and identity—bookish, culturally literate, comfortably-off and warmly hospitable to their friends, he’s the host of some kind of talk show for the intelligentsia, while she works for a publisher; they seem happy together, and their son comes across as a reasonably well-adjusted, well-behaved kid. Still, there’s more to all of these characters than meets the eye, especially Georges. Georges seems to know—or *thinks* he knows—more about the meaning of the tapes and drawings than he lets on, and proceeds to investigate his suspicions without sharing them with Anne, much to the latter’s frustration (well portrayed by Binoche).

And here is the point at which every reviewer of “Caché” probably feels a little like Georges confronting Anne, reluctant to disclose anything but at the same time guilty about leaving the audience wholly in the dark. All I can say without giving away too much is that some basic knowledge of France’s relations with its former colonies, and immigrants therefrom, is essential to understanding the film’s broader thematic canvas, and that the point of the movie is *not* who is sending the tapes and drawings but what effect they have on their target—and why. “Caché” has the form of a Hitchcockian mystery, but it’s really a psychological study of the insulating mechanisms a privileged class can employ to deny and suppress guilt. In both aspects, I couldn’t help comparing it to the movie I’d seen just a couple of weeks previously, “Match Point,” and in both aspects I have to say Haneke makes Woody Allen look like a rank amateur.

No doubt this has partly to do with the fact that Haneke has mined similar territory in his prior work. I haven’t seen any of his previous films, but he’s apparently made a career out of skewering the complacencies, prejudices, and social accountability (and denials thereof) of the very class of persons most likely to see his movies. (“Match Point,” by contrast, was a pretty blatant fantasy about a culture that was most remarkable for being so completely outside Woody’s zone of familiarity.) As “Caché” progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the guilt of the individual is really a symbolic vehicle for the larger collective, subconscious guilt of an entire class, if not the entire nation of France. Perhaps, as a result, the allegory ends up being a little too much weight for the plot to bear, and many viewers may come away from the film feeling that it is less than fair to the character it seems to condemn most harshly.

Which is not to imply the film is in any way preachy or message-driven. In fact, it arguably works best not as a sociocultural commentary but on a purely technical level as a thriller and perspective-disjointing brain-tease. There is one moment in particular that is guaranteed to deliver a ghastly shock: no matter what you think you know, you won’t see that one coming. One reason it’s so effective is that it is on some level so wildly disproportionate to the actions that precede it. Yet its very senselessness inspires not disbelief but horror, followed by reassessment of the relationship between the people involved. Such a reassessment is unlikely to yield any satisfying resolution, for this is the archetypal “iceberg” story, in that the vast majority of the film’s meaning remains, well, hidden from view. That, however, is the root of its haunting appeal. At once allusive and elusive, maddeningly elliptical yet razor-edged, “Caché” just may be the most intriguing film of 2005.



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