France / Austria / Germany / Italy, 2005
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 07 October 2005
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
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The camera is a critic.
- Orson Welles
There is a scene near the beginning of Michael Haneke’s Caché that probably goes unnoticed by casual spectators, but reveals a great deal about the intentions of a film that distracts, confounds, and frustrates so many viewers. Unfortunately, it’s easy to discard the sequence as merely imparting plot details if one is overly fixated on the thriller aspect of Haneke’s film. The scene begins routinely enough with a close-up of Georges as he hosts his book-review TV show and then slowly pulls back to a wider shot as he bids goodnight to his loyal audience. As is customary the discussion panel is revealed and the director asks them to hold for the credits to roll. Based on the familiar situation, it’s clear that the perspectives of both the fictional TV program and Haneke’s film have become temporarily synchronized during the show’s closing segment in order to show Georges at work. At this point the perspective of the TV program harmlessly supersedes the viewpoint of the film. While the panel continues their discourse, a woman notifies Georges that he has an urgent phone call. Considering the recent unnerving events that have frightened his family, Georges is flustered and walks off the TV set into a nearby hallway. It turns out his family has been harassed yet again by their unknown enemy and Georges must hurry home. The sequence seems fairly ordinary within a standard thriller.
However, there is a distinct incongruence in perspective during the scene if one questions just who has positioned the viewer as a voyeur. If we are watching the production of a French TV show, then why has the cameraman tracked Georges while he takes a personal call in the hallway (the entire shot is unbroken by editing) and why is the sound still on? If we are only watching a simple thriller then why were we obligated to watch the conclusion of the TV show? Just who exactly is watching Georges at this moment? The answer lies in the fact that Caché is anything but a straightforward movie. If viewers seek to crack the mystery Haneke initially assembles they should then be prepared to take their examination far past the limits imposed upon the usual thriller.
Haneke begins his film in high-definition video by having us watch a long, uninterrupted, stationary shot of an undisclosed street in Paris. Given its length and monotony, the visual soon turns tiresome, until the picture suddenly and inexplicably becomes distorted in a familiar fashion. The collective unease is alleviated by the sound of two off-screen voices commenting on the images. It quickly becomes apparent that the unidentified speakers are responsible for rewinding the film.
Though the audience once again comprehends the circumstances, Haneke has forced the viewer to momentarily debate just who exactly controls the image being watched. On some level even Haneke has relinquished a certain degree of influence over the footage. Indeed, much of the unease that Caché exudes is created from the ambiguity of the visual context and the uncertainty over who controls its creation and observation. In retrospect, Haneke’s explicitly states his intentions right away by slowly typing his credits onto the screen. Within a single shot, Haneke has expertly shaped a situation whereby the viewer must constantly be conscious of the position of the camera and it is mandatory to question the perspective of every frame of the film.
The viewer is then allowed temporary relief as Haneke shifts to a more ordinary style in order to arrange his unsettling scenario. The opening sequence is revealed to be from a surveillance video of the home of a bourgeois couple, named Georges and Anne, who are now watching the tape. Georges is a respectable TV personality while Anne works at a publishing company, and they have a teenage son named Pierrot (for the Pierrot le fou buffs, I believe they also have a friend named Marianne). The problem is that the mundane footage is not from any surveillance camera the couple has implemented themselves. Instead, Anne found the tape on their doorstep accompanied by what appears to be a child’s crayon drawing, though the precision of the sketch suggests imitation. The drawing is of a particularly grisly image of red/blood (let’s not forget Godard’s distinction between the two) spilling from a child’s open mouth. More tapes materialize, with each successive video image closing the distance between observer and subject and further invading the family’s privacy. Each new tape is accompanied by another crude drawing, with the severity of the image depicted escalating with each subsequent package. Equally alarming is that their adversary deliberately taunts the family by ensuring each family member receives drawings outside their home, threatening the implicit safety of everyday locations. More disturbing is how the images affect Georges’ memory and dreams, as well as how well they predict events.
With repressed childhood memories restored, Georges assumes he knows the identity of the perpetrator. His suspicions lead him back to his family’s farm, where Georges gently confronts his mother about the childhood troubles he had with a young Algerian boy named Majid, who his parents considered adopting before the conflict between the two boys made it impossible. The remainder of Caché is devoted to investigating the exact details of the childhood dispute between Georges and Majid, as well as whether or not Georges’ childish indiscretion against Majid has any connection to the wave of harassment his family is currently subjected to. The exact details of both offenses remain vague throughout, but Caché purposely leaves one mystery entirely unresolved in order to scrutinize other issues.
Among Haneke’s chief concerns are the consequences of France’s prior transgressions against Algeria, which France now appears content to conveniently disregard. Haneke is not disguising the fact that Georges and Majid represent their respective countries and that their past personal conflicts serve as metaphor for the history between the two nations. The metaphor is especially overt since the childhood rivalry took place during the height of the clash between France and Algeria. However, his allegory could certainly be extended further to a view of any majority in power and the minority trying to subsist.
Convinced Majid is attempting to now settle the past grievance by now terrorizing his family, Georges uses clues planted within the videotapes to hunt down and confront the middle-aged Algerian. His search leads him to a small apartment in a more meager section of town, where Majid calmly invites him into his home with the disparity in their living conditions becoming clear. The discussion between the two men regarding their history and whether either is willing to take responsibility for prior actions explores the prevailing views of the prosperous and the exploited. Majid seems to have accepted his circumstance and remains composed and reasonable throughout their conversation, while Georges is hostile and aggressive at the notion that he is obligated to feel guilty over past childish actions he made before he developed a mature moral code. The reunion ends with a foolish threat that will later be manipulated. Though possibly unwarranted, the antagonistic behavior between the two men will continue. Unfortunately, while Majid’s participation remains unclear, Georges’ tactics display an increasing degree of aggression. As Georges continues to invade and attack Majid’s basic rights through more formal means, determining the offending party becomes problematic, while the ideas of intimidation and terrorism becomes confusing.
Based on his career to date, many view the attitude within Haneke’s films to simply be one of cynicism and condemnation. His supporters usually claim Haneke to be a shrewd critic of Western society who compels his audience to examine their casual assumptions. Meanwhile, his detractors maintain he is overly judgmental and arrogant, creating films that are infatuated with their own nasty morality. Even worse, some view Haneke to be purposely spiteful and cruel to his own characters. It’s actually a tough assertion to refute, given films such Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. However, this viewpoint somewhat ignores Haneke’s remarkable concentration on his characters. Through long takes that allow his actors opportunity to probe, Haneke often spends an excruciating amount of time dissecting characters that others would leave as caricatures. Certainly, there are prolonged moments within many Haneke films, especially his more recent efforts, where we not only understand the plight of his characters, but also identify with their inadequacies and tendencies, however extreme and exaggerated these flaws may seem. Few contemporary directors allow their actors, and thus their audience, to gain such an absorbing intimacy with such distasteful characters. Though slightly more subdued, Caché is no different, as it’s centered on the astute performances of Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as the frightened couple that have their tranquil marriage disrupted by the husband’s inability to admit his past mistakes or to trust his spouse with the fundamental details of his own character.
It is easy to dismiss Haneke’s message in Caché as just another simplified version of Western guilt over a colonialist history that once exhibited racist beliefs. On the surface Caché appears to be another instance of a director reprimanding the bourgeois for achieving their status through the exploitation of an oppressed class. However, hidden within Haneke’s film is a more considerate appraisal of his lead character’s mentality, which raises Caché above being just another redundant message-movie. Haneke is critical of Georges’ actions throughout and he never excuses the choices his central-character makes, but he does allow Georges the benefit of having the audience not only contemplate his position but often assume his perspective.
Part of the reason Georges becomes increasingly hostile is that the motivations of his adversary remain unclear, which only frustrates him further since he’s uncertain exactly who he has hurt with his prior actions. While it is stereotypical for Georges to assume Majid to be the video-terrorist that is harassing his family, it is not exactly a groundless accusation. In fact, based upon their shared history and the clues given, it is actually quite a logical conclusion to draw. It’s also reasonable that Georges feels seriously threatened by these videos, even if they realistically only menace his life in mundane ways. While his family is only frightened by the acts of surveillance and the delivery of unwanted packages, considering these tapes are supplemented with crayon images that only Georges could comprehend the significance of, they are justifiably more unnerving for him. More importantly, once Haneke’s film adopts Georges’ perspective during his dreams and memories, the audience must realize that Georges is being honest when recollecting his past. Though his actions as a child may have been childish and selfish, the sense of fear he feels from Majid is genuine and appropriate based upon the events we observe. Indeed, because of the fused perspective Haneke applies, the childhood interactions with Majid are traumatic experiences for both Georges and the audience, resulting in some horrific images that startle and frighten all parties involved. Additionally, we must realize the claims Georges made concerning Majid’s poor health were not pure fabrications fuelled by immature jealousy, but an eerie event both Georges and the viewer witness. Thus, it’s apparent that Georges’ rash decisions as a youngster were not motivated out of pure racism, but out of fear that his status within his family was vulnerable due to Majid’s presence. Unfortunately his childish retaliation has dismal consequences that Georges simply cannot grasp as a child.
Although the repression of collective guilt may be the catalyst for the events within Caché, Haneke is more disapproving of Georges’ inability to grasp the consequences of his past actions as an adult. What Georges perceives to be a trivial juvenile defense mechanism turns out to be a critical incident in Majid’s life that has a profound influence on how he lives today. Through a relentless examination of Georges and his sustained effort to keep his past decisions concealed — sometimes completely denying any harm occurred — we observe a man unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. It does not appear that Georges was intentionally racist towards Majid, so much as he simply feared the foreign boy as an outsider attempting to seize some of his attention. However, Haneke appropriately perceives racism as just another childish, irrational, thoughtless reaction, and though he is not deliberately racist, Georges’ response displays the underlying taint of racism. Caché suggests that though we are currently enlightened that racism is reprehensible, we must still recognize our small acts of recklessness mean much more to the wronged minority and also admit our past intolerant indiscretions have negative ramifications in the present. While his characterization of Majid is rather thin, Haneke respectfully depicts his Algerian characters as not demanding any form of restitution or reparation for their struggles. Instead, Majid only requests that Georges understand that his thoughtlessness hindered Majid’s ability to adapt to French society. In essence, the party that has arranged the scenario is allowing Georges the opportunity for redemption, but unfortunately, out of pride or spite, he is averse to making this concession. Since George is unwilling to grant him any measure of respect, Majid perceives himself as confined. Sensing the futility of his labors and unwilling to endure further humiliation, Majid assumes he’s no better off than any farm animal and takes actions accordingly. In the greater context, Haneke is not asserting that France should remain ashamed of its prior actions against Algeria, but instead asks that the nation simply acknowledge that its careless former policies have resulted in adversity for the Algerian people.
Whether the initial offense is invasion, occupation, or oppression, what Haneke is rightfully disturbed by is the reluctance of Western societies to question their own viewpoint or comprehend a differing foreign perspective. Understanding he cannot completely alter the entrenched confidence that individuals have in their own perspective, Haneke makes his case through the style and form of his film. Caché serves as Haneke’s attempt to undermine the implicit trust Western viewers have while witnessing on-screen events by blurring formal boundaries and causing them to doubt the standard perspective assumed in regular thrillers. By constantly distorting his image, switching from ongoing events to recorded footage, and adopting uncomfortable advantage points, Haneke shakes viewers out of their detached passive viewpoint as an audience seeking distraction. Caché forces the audience to actively ponder the perspective of the images they are watching, often making them complicit in the events they witness. In doing so, Caché causes viewers to inspect the natural assumptions made while watching a film, which I’m certain Haneke hopes his viewers will carry further.
Being subjected to another point of view is often an unsettling experience and Haneke isn’t above treating his characters in a similar fashion to his audience. Indeed, part of what causes grief for our middle-class couple is that the anonymous videotapes force them to observe their own lives from an outsider’s perspective. Georges and Anne both have occupations that require them to critique assorted aspects of society, and their home is filled with videotapes and books that allow them to comfortably evaluate culture on their own terms. However, they are not as relaxed once they realize an external party is examining their complacent lives. Even though the images are dull, the notion of surveillance creates an evident sense of menace and paranoia for a couple resigned to their bourgeois stasis. Haneke’s point appears to be that while the affluent find it easy to condemn other countries and foreign cultures for their moral and political conduct, they rarely are willing to endure similar scrutiny of their own lifestyles. Thus, Haneke skillfully turns his camera into a stationary intruder, capable of causing distress in any viewer, whether actual or fictional, with its predatory stare.
Haneke does not limit his analysis only to the viewer, but also to the medium in which images are delivered and received. The communication within Caché is noticeably hindered by the long-standing discord between cultures, whether due to prior political policy that still carries weight today or the concealed existing prejudices that have damaged the characters’ facility for compassion and intimacy. While basic discussion appears unsuccessful in Caché, certain methods of contact are able to pierce through the bourgeois shield, though their value varies. Interestingly, the most effective form of communication is the simple color drawing that seems to convey more meaning in its tiny size than any number of complex conversations. In fact, rather than the monotonous images on the irksome videotapes, it is the buried message within the crayon image that provides context for the video, exhumes memories, and provokes Georges to engage in his unwise pursuit. Oddly, more advanced methods of communication seem to deliver contentious results. The stream of images that video offers yields meaning only when context is provided, and the telephone does not require actual discourse while it obscures the identity of the speaker.
Meanwhile, Haneke is more severe when examining the medium of television. The presence of television seems unavoidable in Caché and its style even appears to invade dreams. Haneke is willing to concede that television serves an important function, especially considering it is the only means of deciphering the video-terrorist’s message. The medium is so fundamental to our comprehension of our surroundings that various characters keep piles of videotapes – perhaps as their own form of documentation – which they seem incapable of discarding. Unfortunately, as in previous Haneke films, television’s persistence inevitably leads to our desensitization. While a crude drawing allows us to concentrate on a single image, the incessant flood of images TV provides us usually allows us to ignore what we have become inundated by.
However, Caché also displays a more complex conception of television. Haneke’s most intriguing use of television comes during a family crisis as Georges and Anne frantically search for a suddenly missing Pierrot. During the scene, as a panicked Anne calls another parent, Haneke places his couple at the edges of the screen while he positions a television in the center of his frame. While the couple’s distress increases, the television streams though a series of images from a broadcast of international news. The footage details the ongoing conflicts and hardships of virtually every “brown” culture in the third world, speeding through images of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and briskly moving from Palestine, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Kashmir. Understandably, the couple is too distracted to even note these sensational scenes of the world around them, yet the contrast of their problem to the misery of the foreigners underscores the disparity between nations. The choice of what to concentrate upon is clear for Georges and Anne, but a dilemma is created for the viewer. Do we watch the personal crisis of our fictional couple created in an artificial film, or do we gaze at the authentic footage of real people engaged in a constant catastrophe? On some level we must also ask if it is entirely acceptable for our central couple to completely ignore widespread global adversity for a personal problem. Viewers may also wonder if it is appropriate while watching a film to be diverted by a television screen that our eyes naturally gravitate towards.
What Haneke recognizes is that television is a compelling medium, but it is also an abstraction that allows viewers to maintain a comfortable distance from the subjects within the images being exhibited. That distance allows TV’s images to distract us, but also provides us the option to discard the product just as easily. Hence the distortion allows a TV audience to regard the Third-World populace within the footage as merely images forever trapped in a box that provides passive programming. Whether or not the reality the image is meant to convey remains elusive, Caché ultimately grants the spectator the power of realization. Since he is a TV personality who constantly watches TV and manipulates images both at work (removing a portion of his show during editing because it’s too theoretical) and at home, it’s reasonable to assume that Georges grasps the nature of television. Yet Georges still ignores visual information that does not directly affect his life. Thus, while Haneke often reprimands television for exploiting suffering and desensitizing viewers to violence, Caché also places the responsibility upon the spectator who decides to disregard the images presented to them. Caché may actually be Haneke’s most balanced representation of television’s function to date, since it seems the director is willing to admit the medium has value even while he critiques its use.
Discerning who actually commands the images within Caché and who exactly serves as the spectator to those images becomes an exasperating issue. It is important to distinguish that the film blends various media together and that the images are manipulated by a number of different parties. It is equally important to notice that the film’s audience and the film’s characters often share the same view, but that the film’s audience remains passive and unable to control the action or image. However, with both perspectives fused, the film’s audience should subject themselves to the same scrutiny imposed upon the fictional characters, and consider why exactly we choose to watch a fictionalized film that distorts, and distracts from, the reality of our surrounding world. Furthermore, Haneke appears to invite disapproval of his own decision to fashion an elaborate thriller, since he occasionally allows television, the very medium he constantly berates, to take control of his film.
Caché’s most baffling question is who creates and sends the invasive videotapes to our content couple. Given their content, the videos act as manifestations of the repressed guilt of a disconnected conscience, whether personal or collective. As the target, Georges believes he can sleep off his own misgivings with help from a couple of sleeping pills and a few hours of dream-life. Instead, he ends up trapped in his childhood memories, watching inertly with the audience as we witness the same transgressions occur once more. Anne also carries a noticeable degree of guilt around, though her distress concerns how she is perceived by her son. As Anne’s martial woes mount under the stress of surveillance, the audience is privy to an encounter between Anne and an acquaintance from work that comforts her (notice that Haneke has an onlooker spy on the couple). Amazingly, we later find out Pierrot is distressed by this liaison, though Anne maintains the bond is plutonic. Of course, we have no idea how Pierrot knows about the meeting (could his digital video-camera make him a suspect?), but it feels as though Anne’s misgivings are a result of knowing anyone could be watching her daily activities. Soon it’s as if Caché itself is becoming an embodiment of guilt. By the time the film concludes with a startling and uncertain alliance disposed to the sides of the screen, there doesn’t appear to be an innocent victim among the survivors.
Ultimately, we must recognize that Haneke pulls the strings of Caché and that the film functions as an abrasive experiment more than a straight narrative. Though Caché acts as yet another provocation by Haneke, unlike the typical thriller that exploits the characters’ plight for the audience’s amusement, Haneke’s exercise allows his audience to consider the basic principles and structures of their surrounding civilization. Whereas the French government fabricated a scenario to lure innocent Algerians into a revolting trap, so too has the video-terrorist created puzzling gifts to ensnare Georges into playing his game, just as Haneke has sculpted a video-thriller to entice his audience into examining their own preconceptions. Of course unlike the French government or the concocted aggressor, Haneke’s goals are not self-serving. Instead he has skillfully interlaced the pretense of a thriller into a film that actually seeks to expose the violations we justify and the perspectives we adopt in order to maintain our status within society. With the visual context of the film constantly shifting, Caché isn’t the first film to make the viewer complicit in the events that transpire, but it among the few that have thoroughly analyzed all parties involved in the transmission of images which forms our collective conscience. Since its debut at Cannes, many critics have scoffed at Caché, claiming it to function as just another one of Haneke’s conceited projects designed to amplify his feeling of superiority, with some boldly claiming the film demonstrates that Haneke does not believe in cinema or humanity. Conversely, I believe Caché embraces the possibilities of cinema as an art-form. I’m also certain that Haneke believes in the potential of the human race, especially given Caché’s final frames. It’s just that Haneke simply does not appreciate some of our conduct thus far.