No filmmaker since Hitchcock is as consumed by his own voyeurism—and moreover, ours—as Michael Haneke, the Austrian puppetmaster best known for the trip-wired mechanisms Funny Games and Code Unknown. Either could be an alternate title for Caché, his mind-blowing modern allegory in the exceedingly persuasive guise of an art-house thriller. This eighth feature from the 63-year-old writer-director represents his most cunning and elegant interlacing of the concepts that have long obsessed him—bourgeois complacency penetrated by strange invaders, the surfacing of subconscious guilt, the ripple effects of violence across generations, and above all, the implausibility of portraying truth in a medium built entirely on fabrication. At his Cannes press conference earlier this year, Haneke quipped, “I always say that films are 24 lies per second,” a wry axiom for his technique. In Funny Games, a villain grabs a remote control and rewinds the film itself to recapture control of a certain scene, while in the stunning Code Unknown, a woman tearfully pleads for her life to a tranquil madman in a sealed-off room…as part of a movie audition. But in Caché, Haneke’s persistent auto-critique is not a rug-pulling prank or a twist of our empathy. Its sly self-recognition is the source of the film’s pathos; its lies are the key to its truth.
Beginning with a fixed, medium range shot of a square home on a serene Parisian street, Haneke wastes no time suggesting that what we are seeing might be, indeed, not what we are seeing. The opening credits silently tick on-screen, letter by miniscule letter, assembling like a masthead so that, among the cast and crew and production company names, even the movie’s title is—to borrow its English translation—hidden. After the credits are gone, the image continues static and unbroken for minutes more, functioning almost like a parody of the establishing shots employed so often in movies as filler. Then the voices of a man and a woman can be heard in the background, commenting on what we are watching as we watch it. And then the picture starts to fast-forward, and it’s clear that this is in fact a television screen. Not the front of a home on a street in Paris, but rather another façade, the depiction caught on videotape of such. As Caché progresses right up to its final image (also a stationary, minutes-long shot) telling the difference is a test of our subjectivity.
The home on video belongs to Georges and Anne (the lead male and female character names in nearly every Haneke film, played here—astoundingly—by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), a married couple with a brooding 12-year-old son (Lester Makedonsky). Their comfortable, sophisticated existence—Georges is the host of a literary talk show, Anne is a book editor—is upended by the anonymous delivery of VHS tapes to their front doorstep, revealing day and night shots of their home, hours in length. The content of the videos don’t initially startle the couple so much as the fact that they are effectively under surveillance—how, why, and by whom? The police won’t intercede since the threat is benign at best, but the sense of dread ratchets up for Georges as the tapes grow more personal in nature, arriving wrapped in crayon-scribbled drawings depicting a head gushing blood, and featuring footage of the country estate he grew up in. Soon the cassettes lead him to a fluorescent-lit hallway in a ratty apartment building on the city outskirts. He knocks on one of the doors, and a squat, dark-skinned man (Maurice Bénichou) opens it, adjusts his eyes on Georges, and demurely remarks, “Look who it is.”
Given that Caché has been devised ostensibly as a tantalizing whodunit—albeit one in which all possible suspects would be acquitted in any court of law based on the burden of proof—it would be better to talk around the plot instead of spoiling anymore of it. At the exits of festival screenings and on message boards, audiences have been buzzing about possible solutions to the movie’s riddles and formulating theories as to its meaning. Some are analyzing the film literally, which is still better than not analyzing it at all, yet it is implicit in the text that a larger metaphoric reading is intended. Haneke, in essence, is offering a condemnation of the First
World—specifically Europe, more specifically France—for its legacy of racism and homogeneity and its laborious efforts to ensure sameness wherever it is challenged. The rejection of an orphaned Algerian child by a French family is the genesis for the film’s major symbolic overture, and Haneke underscores the point by having the French family member responsible for purging the young Algerian be a six-year-old child—spoiled by design, anti-intellectual, and fearful of change. Caché espouses a moral, to be sure, but keeps itself from devolving into a cantankerous polemic. Georges’s glib use of the phrase “campaign of terror” exposes Haneke’s cynicism about current affairs more than any puffed-up sense of moralizing.
Haneke also encourages a figurative interpretation of the movie’s smoking gun—the videotapes. His thematic use of the film-within-a-film conceit brings to mind—and indeed literalizes—social critic HL Mencken’s definition of conscience: “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” Through Haneke and cinematographer Christian Berger’s scrupulously detailed mise-en-scène, that observational aspect of Mencken’s quote—the looking—is materialized visually as a feeling of perpetual surveillance. The videos can be read as a pure manifestation of Georges’s own repressed memory, with the line between his conscience and the tapes on the doorstep eventually spliced to the point where no disparity exists between them. Scenes in which clearly no camcorder is present are framed and shot to heighten our awareness that somebody may still be looking—such as when a boy is dragged kicking and screaming into a car or when Anne seeks friendly consolation in the arms of another man. Haneke’s utterly voyeuristic technique is straight out of the Rear Window school—his films are shot through the same eyehole, with the same temporal restrictions, that our gaze affords us in real life. And by praying on our fears of being watched—and thus, of being publicly exposed—he renders a deep psychological commentary on the capacity of the guilty conscience, either of an individual or a nation, to shudder itself to the surface.
In a dinner party scene, a guest of Georges and Anne’s recounts a story involving an elderly woman and a dog that begins poignant but then veers eerily into the supernatural, and ultimately bursts open with a punchline. Haneke’s acumen as a storyteller, likewise, lies in synchronizing the pulse of his audience to that of his film, and then slowing or quickening it at will. Those who have seen The Piano Teacher know of his predilection for using self-mutilation as a shock tactic. In Caché, Georges is witness to an act of unfathomable brutality (on par with Faces of Death and achieved with a seamless visual effect) which shoves the reality of the world into his eyes and stuns his defenses. Subsequent scenes take place in either a real or metaphoric state of darkness and denial, with a plea from Georges to turn off all the lights accentuating his psychic compulsion to be kept in the dark. Yet Haneke would not be Haneke if he didn’t end with one last little prick of our brains. In Caché‘s final shot, two pivotal supporting characters have a seemingly cordial encounter, the mere occurrence of which cracks the film open to greater interpretations. But their meeting, naturally, takes place in a big crowd and is never spotlighted; it could be, and has been, totally overlooked by audiences. Even in plain sight, there are things that are hidden.