A Stalk to Remember
A Family Unwillingly Has Someone to Watch Over Them in This Psychological Essay Thriller
From Caché’s first image, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke implements a razor-sharp understanding of the first assumption of cinema: If a moment is captured, it must be significant. But why is it significant? Whose moment is it?
The ultimate answer is: It’s ours. And so, Haneke’s great new movie—less overtly brutal than Funny Games, as unsettlingly intimate as his criminally neglected Year of the Wolf—is inclusive in the most unwelcome of ways. Like us, his characters are almost comically unable to grasp what is right in their faces. In the case of Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a talking head on a literary TV show, and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), another intelligentsia peddler who works for a publishing company, the crucial dissembling flaw is simple: the assumption that by disavowing responsibility for past actions that they will gain immunity from any repercussions those actions create. Aside from the idea’s timeliness, it helps explain why critics who should know better, many of them hyper-educated Georgeses and Annes themselves, tend to call Haneke's work “sadistic.”
That first image, shot from a mysterious cubbyhole of some sort, shows a serene, upper-middle-class Paris street, with a lovely home center in the composition. Nothing happens. Time passes, and nothing continues to happen—which, of course, heightens our apprehension: Seldom in movies does so little happen without a big, fat something following. When someone rides a bike past the house, you’re so on edge, you half expect (hope?) he’ll lob a bomb at it.
Instead, a pair of voices speak, the image freezes and rewinds, and we realize we’ve been watching a video—Caché is shot in autopsy-room cold, POV-blurring high-definition video—and it’s Georges and Anne providing the play-by-play. Georges’ name appears first because this is really his story—although his just desserts eventually banish him to a periphery role in his own fate—and because it is Georges who wields the remote control.
Borrowing David Lynch’s McGuffin from Lost Highway, Georges and Anne receive more surveillance tapes of their house. The tapes are accompanied by a childish drawing of a boy with a red smear gushing from his mouth. The image is especially frightening, as Georges and Anne are struggling to raise their own boy, Pierrot Laurent (Lester Makedonsky), a typically sullen, angsty teen. But increasingly, and finally crucially, Pierrot’s resentment has a cause, the source of which floats completely under his parents’ self-immersed radar.
Haneke doesn’t waste an image or moment that isn’t wrought with purpose. We won’t say how, but the content of the tapes and notes jar free memories of something horrible in Georges’ past that he’d felt his privilege had permanently consigned to his subconscious’ memory shredder. The tapes slowly invade and fracture his comfortably barren designer life, showing up at work, in the boardroom. Anne becomes so distraught that she even ruins a dinner party discussing them. The horror.
When a new tape shows a tatty hallway in a tenement, Georges susses out with suspicious ease and Psycho-level shocking result where that tenement is and meets—well, let’s not ruin things and merely note that in an earlier scene Georges and Anne argue over what to do while their wide-screen plasma TV shows footage of civilians being killed by U.S. forces in Iraq. This bit of political specificity is, in a larger sense, irrelevant: In this movie about denied guilt, you could easily substitute most any nation’s tacitly denied crimes.
Auteuil and Binoche are perfect in that unassuming manner that looks impossible for method-soiled American actors. Georges knows right from wrong, but he is so invested in an occluded version of both that the only way he can maintain psychological integrity is to paint his screwups with rationalizations that support his inaccurate and glamorized view of himself as a decent guy. Anne embodies the ironic failure of post-feminism: She makes money and has position but still looks to her man for action and family cohesion. In both cases, Haneke isn’t wagging a damning finger at his flawed leads, but creating tragedy from their comfortable blindness.
Haneke isn’t deconstructing the elements of the thriller that Caché touches upon, but goes against genre expectations to add to and implicate the viewer in the movie’s larger concerns. He never allows his characters—or viewers—a moment’s comfort. Seemingly minor scenes linger beyond what we assume them to be about. The few moments of apparent revelation/resolution are cut from abruptly, making it clear that Georges and Anne probably have neither in store for them. And it’s advised to stay to the last second of the credits as a final, devastating piece of the puzzle falls into place. But Caché’s larger mysteries and implications? Those go home with you.