Judge Joe Armenio finds that some puzzles in life are too complicated to be easily solved—The New York Times Sunday crossword, for example.
"What did we suppress in order to arrive where we are?"
Austrian director Michael Haneke, who now works in France, is one of the boldest, most uncompromising experimenters working in narrative film these days. While his preoccupations have remained the same in the decade since his commercial breakthrough (the near-impossibility of fruitful connection between human beings, both on a personal and societal level, with an emphasis on the destructive power of class difference and mass culture), he's tended to work in two rather different narrative modes. Funny Games (1997) and The Piano Teacher (2001) are blunt-force provocations, full of shocking imagery from which Haneke's austere camera never shrinks, while Code Unknown (2000) and Time of the Wolf (2003) are more cryptic and elusive, frustrating audience expectations by failing to fulfill any of the functions of traditional narrative cinema.
Caché is more in the elliptical mode, but what makes it especially interesting is the way that Haneke creates a deeply mysterious, unsettling film using a totally clear, uncluttered mise-en-scene and camera style, as well as simple dialogue. The tension is between simple images and messy reality, as Haneke explores the way that our seemingly organized lives are built around repressions and evasions that we don't fully understand.
Facts of the Case
Georges (Daniel Auteuil, The Widow of St. Pierre) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche, Code Unknown) are comfortable haute bourgeois intellectuals living in a stylish, book-filled Paris townhouse with an adolescent son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky); he's the host of a book-discussion show on TV and she works for a publisher. The film begins with an extended shot of the townhouse's exterior, which turns out to be a video that the Laurents have mysteriously received: someone is taping them. They soon receive more videos, all of which seem to document places important to Georges, and he begins to suspect that they are somehow related to an incident in his childhood which involved a family of Algerian laborers on his parents' farm.
Caché is a difficult film to talk about in the context of a consumer-guide DVD review, since much of its power derives from the ways in which the mystery moves in fits and starts, seeming to unravel a bit, then becoming more troubling, leading to subtle but profound changes in the relationships between the three members of the family and the people whom they suspect of tormenting them. This gradual parceling of information both creates suspense and serves a thematic purpose, illustrating the ways in which truth is repressed, distorted by evasions and half-hearted attempts to communicate. So I won't ruin this effect by giving away too much of the plot, except to say that one can't go away from the film attempting to solve every narrative problem based on the information provided; if Caché is a puzzle, it's one whose maker has impishly removed a number of pieces and has even added some pieces from other puzzles, in order to remind us that human lives are puzzles far too complicated ever to be solved.
I've already mentioned how Haneke creates a clearly delineated world which is nonetheless deeply murky; the most obvious illustration of this is that we can never quite be sure whether any individual shot is the film itself or part of a video being watched by its characters. Of course, this could easily become the stuff of cheap mind games, but Haneke never overplays it and always makes sure, eventually, to orient us. From moment to moment, however, the effect is unsettling in an ingeniously quiet and subtle way. This is also a comment on spectatorship, a subject that's been on Haneke's mind for years: it's a telling, and characteristically Haneke-ian, irony that Georges is the host of a book-discussion show, a person who goes on TV to make things clearer, while the TV, through these videos, serves to make his own life increasingly confusing.
Haneke has always been interested in political as well as personal relationships and the issue of race and national guilt is prominent here. Majid, the person who Georges becomes convinced is sending the tapes, suffered because of the events of October 17, 1961, when police killed more than 200 North African immigrants at a Paris demonstration against the Algerian war, and Georges feels a personal guilt that relates tangentially to that event. It doesn't help Georges that other people aren't very interested in uncovering unpleasant truths: Georges's mother claims not to think at all about Majid anymore and his boss just wants to sweep the matter under the rug. Caché isn't an allegory and I don't think it makes sense to look for one-to-one correspondences between Georges's life and the political life of France as a whole. However, Haneke wants us to understand that guilt and its repression poison the lives of nations as well as those of people. Ignoring the trauma! s of the past, creating queasy, half-believed self-justifications, and telling lies both big and small are Georges's tactics and those of the nation as well, and they don't do anybody any good.
Sony presents Caché in a sharp transfer and surround sound (which seems like overkill since the film's sound design, while precise, is not especially elaborate; it's a quiet film, with no score or other non-diagetic music at all). English and Spanish subtitles are optional and in a nicely readable yellow. There are two good, illuminating extras: the first is a 25-minute interview with Haneke, conducted in French (with optional English subtitles) by the critic Serge Toubiana (editor of Cahiers du Cinema and co-author of a biography of Francois Truffaut). Haneke is expansive, emphasizing the psychology of the film, the ways in which repressed guilt operates, as Georges harms himself through white lies and half-hearted explanations; conversations begun with the best of intentions cause even more distance and suspicion. Those who have spent time trying to decipher the film's last shot will be pleased to know that Haneke discusses it in the interview as well, a! lthough those expecting resolution might find his comments on it a bit disappointing. The other extra is a half-hour documentary on the making of the film, directed by Yves Montmayeur and called Hidden Side. This is far from the usual promotional puff-piece; Auteuil and Binoche both talk about Haneke with admiration, but also with some frustration at his relentless perfectionism (Binoche also worries about the "lack of hope" in his films). Haneke is interviewed as well, and we also see him setting up scenes (including one, featuring Georges in a movie theater, that didn't make it into the final film) and yelling at his crew for failing to solve some technical problem. It's all good stuff, not necessarily revelatory but not just an advertisement, either, providing some insight into the film and its makers, as good extras are supposed to do.
Haneke's universe can be a forbidding place. His characters have no escape from the psychological and political traps laid for them, and the director doesn't give the audience any respite either: Caché has no humor except for the driest of ironies, no final resolution to the mysteries of the narrative, no music to tell us what to feel. This won't be news to those familiar with Haneke's work, but I think Caché is my favorite film of his, for the way in which its form and its narrative complement and complicate each other.
Fans of Haneke won't be disappointed and, for those who are new to his work, this is a good place to start.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Michael Haneke
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