17 January 2011

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

is a quietly unsettling, almost unbearably intense "thriller," made with a subtlety so finely controlled that it bears almost no similarity to most thrillers the average, or even the above-average, audience would usually be exposed to. Michael Haneke, known now, after his 2008 Funny Games and 2009's The White Ribbon, as a director of ruthless -- some might say downright chilly -- efficiency, perfectly matches his directorial style to the subject matter here. Having seen Caché for the second time recently, it is more apparent than ever that this is his masterpiece, and a masterful piece of work in any sense, especially since my reception to The White Ribbon was lukewarm, admiring its craftsmanship but never really being drawn into the story, and my reception to Funny Games was as one downright revolted and insulted. But here the subject is honesty, trust, deception, internalized emotions, uncertainty, and as such, Haneke's cold and measured approach is tonic.

Daniel Auteuil brilliantly plays Georges, the host of a literary talk show. His wife, Anne, played with magnificent poise and quietly simmering indignation and fear by Juliette Binoche, and son, Pierrot, live in an affluent suburban home. The opening shot is a prolonged shot of this house from the point of view of a nearby alleyway, so still and uneventful that it might as well be a photograph, but eventually it is revealed to be a videotape, which the family has received in the mail anonymously, with a disturbing childish drawing accompanying it. The gradual appearance of more such tapes and drawings shakes the family from its outwardly calm foundation. Who is sending these tapes? How can they be doing this (especially since several of the tapes show Auteuil walking right by the camera without noticing anything amiss)?

A dream awakens Georges to a hunch of who could be responsible, while also unearthing a shameful secret from his childhood past. It involves a little Algerian boy whom his family had adopted long ago after the deaths of his parents; Georges spread lies about him that led to his being taken away to... some kind of home, or perhaps a hospital, and he hasn't seen the boy, now a man, since. He acts on this hunch without letting his wife in on his knowledge, for fear it might reveal a dark side in her husband. After receiving a tape showing a tracking shot of a street, leading into an apartment, down a hallway, and finally ending in front of a door to one of the flats, Georges decides to find out who lives there. His hunch is confirmed as to the occupant, but does little to reveal the sender of the tapes. Majid, the Algerian boy from the hazy recesses of Georges's past, lives there, but says he has no idea how the tapes were made or who is behind their recording. Despite Georges later receiving a tape, clearly shot in Majid's apartment, showing his conversation with Majid, we believe that Majid was not behind them, in part because of how he reacts on the tape and thanks in large part to the convincing, utterly sincere acting of Maurice Bénichou.

Majid also has a son, we learn, and surely he must be the one behind the tapes. Shortly after Georges and Majid's first encounter, Pierrot goes missing. Surely, the father and son must be behind his unexplained absence. But no, they deny even knowing of Pierrot or the tapes, and the former matter resolves itself without implicating them.

The film plants subtle clues as to who could really be the sender of the tapes. Pay particularly close attention to a scene exactly 20 minutes in, *potential spoiler alerts!* showing a dark hallway leading up to a child crouching by a window, coughing up blood. The view from this window seems ever so slightly similar to the view we see in the first tape Georges and Anne receive. And the final shot, a densely populated tableau outside of Pierrot's school, shows two characters meeting who shouldn't even be aware of each other. And yet, they go their separate ways, with no menacing resolution to speak of. Haneke controls his shots and keeps them as objective as possible, keeping us as uncertain, even paranoid, most of the time as Georges and Anne become.

But the who-done-it question at the heart of Caché, as tantalizing as it is and as much as it often drives our interest in the film, is almost beside the point as the movie winds towards its conclusion. It's less about who sends the tapes than what they reveal in Georges, his family, his past. His evasion and untrustworthy nature, as well as his refusal to take responsibility and instead force his views on everyone else, blaming and threatening, comes ever more to the forefront even as the list of possible suspects dwindles away and thwarts all rational conclusions. Georges's sly deception is echoed in Haneke's directorial choices, expertly engineered to deceive us and make us question the events in the film and even in our own lives. The tapes that the family receives and their varied reactions to them become a metaphor for cinema, its threatening but also provoking power, and an audience's reaction to a film.

Caché has been directed with laser precision, with such control over each facet as to render each scene completely noteworthy and resonant on multiple levels. Along with the dedicated performances of his cast, Haneke has masterfully created a tight thriller that both subverts our usual ideas of what a thriller should be while elevating the form into the realm of social and meta-cinematic commentary, with an urgency that speaks directly and forcefully to its audience, indicting us all in the often tragic events of the film (but without ever becoming muddled in this attempt or insulting our intelligence, as did Funny Games). Especially after this second viewing, Caché is a striking, clear-eyed masterpiece, quite possibly now my favourite film from 2005. (The Best of Youth and A History of Violence can now duke it out for #2.) A

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