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A French intellectual thriller is effective but loathsome

I don't know that I've ever had a reaction to a movie as extreme as the one I had to Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden). Watching the French production, mesmerized, at last fall's New York Film Festival, I recall thinking, "This may be the year's best film." Walking out of the theater I still felt that way. Yet a half-hour later I had changed my mind all but completely, deciding that this was more a film to loathe than to love.

That mental somersault came as a result of thinking about something that happens very late in the story, an incident so fleeting and so buried--hidden--in the film's fiendishly clever visual plan that many viewers don't even see it. I'll say more about this further on.

Caché concerns an upper-middle-class Parisian family that is terrorized (a word that's used repeatedly) by an unknown party who begins peppering them with creepy videotapes and drawings and cryptic phone calls. You might consider the film a thriller if you would apply the same word to Antonioni's The Passenger. Indeed, generically, Haneke's movie is a formally rigorous (impressively so), intellectually dense and tantalizing European art film in the tradition not only of Antonioni but of Bergman, Polanski, Kubrick and Kieslowski.

The film's opening shot is immediately striking, though not in the way most films are, or try to be. The camera gazes like an unblinking eye at a nice but unremarkable Parisian home from a short distance down a side street. The image has an almost hyper-realist clarity. The film's opening credits appear in a dozen or so lines of small type over the image. After they disappear, the street scene continues for a while. A few people pass, but mostly everything is calm.

What's insinuating about this image is that it's ostensibly so undramatic, so baldly factual (an impression heightened by the fact that Haneke uses only "concrete" sound and avoids music throughout). The scene's documentary-like quality, in fact, recalls the just-let-the-camera-roll strategies of experimental wizards such as Andy Warhol and Michael Snow. Yet, more subtly perhaps, it also hints at Hitchcock's way of locating existential terror in the midst of the absolutely ordinary.

When we see this same image again, it startles us by suddenly jumping into fast motion. What we're seeing the second time around is not the film image we think we saw earlier (actually, all of Caché was shot on high definition video, though cinematographer Christian Berger gives it a gorgeously muted celluloid look). Rather, it is a video image on a cassette being watched by Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche).

The cassette, containing an hour's fixed-camera view of their house's exterior, including their own comings and goings, has been left on the Laurents' doorstep. They look at the street across from the house and can't even figure out where the camera was placed. Unsurprisingly, they are more than a little freaked out to realize they're being subjected to a kind of surreptitious surveillance by persons unknown.

Beyond the obvious plot kick-start that this cryptic cassette provides, it also sets up a pattern that recurs throughout Caché. Repeatedly we have our usual certainties or assumptions about the image we're watching undermined, in several senses. "Film" suddenly becomes video. Images that seem like standard third-person film narrative are revealed to be images shot by a (hidden) character in the film. In having this kind of epistemological uncertainty thrust on us, we're not only forced to consider the intentionality behind every image, we're also drawn into a world where media technologies that we assume are there to help us (like surveillance cameras) suddenly become malevolent and assaultive.


Haneke is an Austrian who in recent years has worked frequently in France. Bracketing and questioning the truth of the filmed image, and exploring its subversion (if you will) by video imagery, is a trademark of his previous films including Benny's Video and Funny Games. As ambitious and brainy as the filmmaker unquestionably is, though, I've long been put off by the streaks of chilly perversity and manipulative sadomasochism in his work. (In fact, I walked out of the despicable Funny Games at Cannes, and swore off Haneke for a while thereafter.) At least initially, Caché seemed a different story.

Given their predicament, the Laurents are sympathetic characters. Both are successful professionals, but they're pretty sure the menace creeping into their lives doesn't relate to their work, or to their apparently very normal 13-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). For a while they try to keep their lives on an even keel, even telling their friends about the strange videos at a dinner party. But the marital bond grows increasingly frayed, especially once it becomes evident that the intrusions don't have to do with them, but with him.

A tape finally arrives that shows, rather than their home, the provincial house where Georges grew up. He goes there and tells his aged mother (Annie Girardot) that he just had a dream about someone from long ago, an Arab boy named Majid. The boy's Algerian parents, who worked for Georges', went to an anti-colonial demonstration in Paris in 1961 and were drowned by police in the Seine along with 200 other Arab protestors. Georges' parents planned to adopt Majid, but 6-year-old Georges was jealous and scotched that plan with a campaign of lies and deceit.

At this point, still in the film's first half, the term "Arab" has been added to "terrorism": a provocative juxtaposition. But what is Haneke's script saying? From one angle, it's throwing the spotlight on a struggle and a state massacre that are still embarrassing to France. Indeed, for years France banned even celebrated films such as Godard's Le Petit Soldat and Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers that dealt with the nation's disastrous war against Algerian independence. So perhaps Caché is pointing the finger at the French bourgeoisie, saying, in effect, "Consider France's crimes against its Arabs if you want to find out why you are being terrorized."

Yet this would explicitly blame the story's terrorism on Arabs, and that doesn't seem to be where Haneke wants to go. Though another videotape leads the increasingly angry Georges to the adult, rather sad and depleted Majid (Maurice Benichou) and his grown son, played by Walid Afkir, both vigorously deny that they had anything to do with the tapes. Where does that leave us?


As the above may suggest, Caché is a film of intricate intellectual gamesmanship and endless formal fascinations. On a shot-for-shot basis, Haneke is one of the most visually eloquent and accomplished European directors working today, and here he gets terrific performances from Auteuil and Binoche, two of France's best actors. Yet I must now plunge into my reservations about the film, and that entails both a "spoilers" caveat and a suggestion.

The caveat: If you plan to see Caché, stop reading after this paragraph and return to this review later. The suggestion: When you see the film and reach a very late scene that's an extended long shot of the front of the school that the Laurents' son attends, look very carefully at who's in this shot and what they're doing. A lot of viewers miss the crucial interaction.

"Don't ask me who sent the videotapes, I don't know," said Haneke at the beginning of his New York Film Festival press conference. A slightly dour, gray-bearded professorial type who insisted on speaking German through an interpreter though he speaks flawless English (I had a long conversation with him in Greece a decade ago), the filmmaker claimed that people had proposed five plausible explanations of the mystery that his film leaves purposely, provocatively unresolved at its end.

On the face of it, Haneke's refusal to spell out his meaning is akin to Antonioni declining to give us the key to L'Avventura or the Beatles to "A Day in the Life." Pop art at its headiest has often insisted on the value of gnomic ambiguity. And sure, maybe Georges is crazy and somehow inflicted his family's miseries himself. Or perhaps space aliens did it. Or Elvis. On the other hand, the film itself suggests one--and, I think, only one--explanation in its final shot.

You have to look carefully and closely to see it, but in that shot, which shows us the front of a school letting out in the afternoon, Majid's son enters (from frame right), seeks out the Laurents' son and engages him in a brief, unheard conversation. What this tells us, I think, is that the young Arab is the answer to the primary question of intentionality that has been perplexing us all along: He is the author of the crimes we've witnessed. (And here he's perhaps setting up the Laurent boy to be his next victim.) If that's accepted, it follows that the Arab youth is not only the film's terrorist, but a brilliant, merciless psychopath to boot.

In effect, this interpretation both completes and reverses the "liberal" political reading suggested above. "Sure, the first generation of Arab immigrants to France was sinned against," it whispers, "but their children are insane, criminal and incorrigible. They can never be assimilated to 'our' ways, but only monitored, controlled and ultimately, perhaps, expelled." (When you hear French reactionaries make this kind of argument, they sometimes charge the Arabs with "nihilism"--a classic case of the conflicted Westerner projecting his values onto the cultural Other.)

No, I'm not suggesting that Haneke is a closet reactionary, even though there are clear fascist implications to the reading just given. Rather, I'm suggesting that Caché, like many of his films, is both willfully perverse and, this time in a political sense, ingeniously sadistic toward both its characters and the audience. If in some ways it marks the peak of current European art cinema, Haneke's latest also exemplifies a kind of moral vertigo that arguably foretells the desiccated end of that same cinema. x

  • A French intellectual thriller is effective but loathsome


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