“Whatever kind of security you try to feed somebody is an illusion.”
– Michael Haneke from a 2001 interview published by indiewire
For obvious reasons, Michael Haneke’s Caché is said to be one of his least brutal films. Compared with his previous works, The Piano Teacher (2001) which revolved around sadomasochism, Funny Games (1997) in which two teenagers took a family hostage and tortured them and 71 Fragments (1994) which depicted a mass murder, Caché is instinctively a walk in the park.
In Caché the Austrian auteur follows the perfect life of a married couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) a well-known TV host, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) as they start receiving lengthy surveillance tapes shooting their house from the front, accompanied with peculiar childish drawings. Even worse is the fact that the police refuse to interfere unless something more significant takes place. As the tapes become more intimate, a paranoid Georges begins to suspect someone from his youth.
In simple Hollywood terms, Caché should be a psychological thriller, yet Haneke – who speaks against mainstream cinema in every chance he gets – doesn’t conform to Hollywood’s templates. Instead, the two times Palme d’Or winner employs his usual anti-entertainment style of long takes, wide angles, short bursts of violence and the abandonment of film score despite being a pianist before directing. As for color, Haneke – quite mockingly – chose a palette predominated by white, a color that in traditional films is used to express security and purity. Haneke generally favors these tools in all of his films to express one of his favorite recurring themes: the inability to communicate in contemporary European society. Accordingly, the closest the viewer ever gets to any of the characters is through rare medium shots, in which the characters appear more like wax figures with overly glowing, terror-stricken eyes and less like people the audience could actually empathize with.
During the first half of the film, we are shown flash shots of an unidentified boy. Later on, it’s revealed that the boy is Majid, an Algerian boy whose parents have died in the ‘61 Paris massacre. As a result, Georges’ parents planned to adopt him. Unfortunately, the adoption was canceled due to wrongdoings caused by a then 6-year-old Georges against young Majid, completely altering Majid’s future. Needless to say, Majid is now Georges’ prime suspect. The 1961 Paris massacre, in which an unknown number of Arab Muslims had died, started off as a peaceful demonstration against a curfew law designed for theFrench Muslims of Algeria, only to turn quickly, violently, and by orders from Paris’s police chief, to an intentional mass murder. For nearly forty years, France denied that the massacre had ever happened.
Georges, whose privileged anxiety deludes him into thinking that every person of different race or religion around the corner is out to get him, goes to confront a now middle-aged Majid (Maurice Bénichou).“What do you want from me?” Georges asks Majid over & over again in their brief first encounter. Not receiving an answer, or more precisely, the answer that he wants, an almost unapologetic Georges leaves Majid to be, but not before he threatens him. It feels adequate to suggest that Georges’ memory is a metaphor for France’s suppressed collective memory lamenting over its colonial past and its heritage of racism, yet at the same time terrified that it is going to catch up with it.
Another thing that makes Caché all the more disturbing is the subtleness with which Haneke shifts between points of view. The audience is aware of the video tapes being video tapes only when they are paused, rewound or replayed. This is in part due to the fact that they are shot in the same style as the rest of the film and with the same quality. Considering this in addition to the flash shots from Georges’ troubled memory, one might ask; what is Haneke trying to achieve? Haneke, an intellectual bourgeois himself, often feels free and even obliged to criticize the intellectual bourgeois: their guilt, their privilege and most importantly their many façades. Thus, the director – who is also the screenwriter –intentionally disorients his audience’s perception. Although this is done to provoke the audience by making them question their own judgment every step of the way, it ends up making mere spectators feel almost as if they’re accomplices.
Master shots, which are used by other directors so as to give a sense of the location before the main dramatic action in the scene takes place, are used by Haneke as the main dramatic action in more than one scene in Caché. Realizing this is the key to understanding the ending. The film’s ending, which is far from being satisfactory, challenges the audience’s attention to details. Amongst a crowd of possibilities, two secondary characters that were never witnessed together before, have a lengthy conversation. Though this rendezvous is suspicious enough, the conversation which we don’t hear doesn’t mean much. It could be everything or nothing at all.
Leaving so many questions unanswered, Haneke makes room for multiple interpretations. Caché, which won its director the best director award at Cannes in 2005, proposes new ways to understand it with each new viewing of it. Who you might consider as the stalker, and why, won’t be the same in one viewing as the next. Being more visually appealing than any of Haneke’s previous films along with its sociopolitical subtext, Caché is set to be a classic years from now. Its theme and enigmatic nature, the fact that it’s one of the best films of the last decade, all point that this film is still going to matter long after its own director is gone.