I seem to be running into a lot of puzzle-box films this week. "Caché," the 2005 French mystery thriller directed by Michael Haneke is a subtle, insidious piece of work that is just as absorbing and provocative as any Hitchcock film.
Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive mysterious video tapes that show their house under surveillance. The police will do nothing because no threats have been made, and the Laurents initially speculate that it could all be a prank, perhaps perpetrated by one of the friends of their young son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). Then the tapes begin to arrive with crude drawings that are similarly vague, but sinister in nature, and the content of the tapes changes. They lead Georges to a forgotten figure from his past, an Algerian orphan his parents once tried to adopt named Majid (Maurice Bénichou). The unwelcome reconnection forces Georges to confront some uncomfortable truths.
"Caché," which translates as "Hidden," plays with perspective and frames of reference in startling and ingenious ways. The opening shot is a static view of the Laurents' house, seen from across the street. It's only after the credits have come and gone from the screen that the picture sudden freezes, and we hear the characters discussing the image that we are seeing. The picture suddenly rewinds, revealing that we have been watching one of the mysterious video tapes sent to the Laurents. It's a jolting, disorienting realization that teeters on breaking the fourth wall. After the viewer has been lulled into a false sense of security, accepting the videotaped scene as the film's baseline reality, suddenly we're pulled out of frame and presented with a different reality that supersedes the original.
This happens several times over the course of the film, as videotaped images and what appear to be memories or dream sequences are interspersed with the main narrative. Similar tricks have been played before in other films, but rarely has there been such a menacing deliberateness about it. Haneke forces the audience to consider how the simple act of being viewed changes the context of certain scenes, how the illusion of privacy is essential to many acts and events. Georges Laurent is a television presenter who makes his living by being on camera, but finds himself persecuted by one that intrudes on his private life. And by inviting us to see what that camera sees, the director makes the audience complicit with the voyeurs.
And what are we to think of the last scene? It's another long static shot, one that captures images of the possible culprits. Or does it? "Caché" is purposefully vague about the details of its central mysteries. We get some significant clues about the purpose videos were made to accomplish and who was behind them, but there are no concrete answers. And if the last shot really does catch the video creator(s) and we're intended to believe that what we’re watching is itself another video, then who is the final voyeur? The director, Michael Haneke? The audience? The Laurents? The film is ambiguous enough to support all three theories and a dozen more.
This is the second Haneke film I've seen after "The White Ribbon," and I can see why he has the reputation he does. "Caché" is beautifully made – well shot, tightly edited, and the script is a marvel of escalating tension. Thematically, the two pictures are similar, examining familial estrangement, class tensions, the hypocrisy of elites, and the origins of horrific violence. "Caché" takes a more direct approach, systematically exposing the faults of its characters and tying them directly to tragic results. Auteuil and Binoche are excellent as the Laurents, a pair of seemingly well-matched intellectuals who surround themselves with books and friends, but the cracks in their façade are revealed under pressure.
Though we sympathize with them in the beginning, their behavior deteriorates, first toward each other and then toward others. By the time Georges confronts the man he believes to be the culprit, his guilty conscience and capacity for evil are exposed, if not his explicit responsibility for the crimes of the past. His greatest crime is the simple act of forgetting, and it's fitting that his reckoning should come through the use of a device that will never let him forget. "Caché" is a strong indictment of the information age, but it also portrays the camera as a brutally effective tool for justice that transcends social barriers. And though Haneke seems to love torturing his characters with it – and some might say the audience too – I suspect his also believes it holds the key to their salvation.
I'm a little wary of tackling the rest of Michael Haneke's films, especially the notorious "Funny Games," but I'll certainly keep an eye out for him in the future. And all the invisible cameras that are watching every move we make.