Hidden in plain view
By Leonard Quart
Michael Haneke is an imaginative Austrian film director who has made provocative films like The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown. His latest and equally compelling film, Caché, centers on an upper middle class Parisian couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a well-known host of a TV literary talk show, and Anne (Juliette Binochet), a book editor. Together they live with their 12-year-old son in a tastefully book-lined home, where they hold dinner parties dominated by smart talk.
There is something a touch smug about their lives. But their ostensible contentment is disrupted when mysterious videotapes and postcards of crude, violent childrens drawings begin to arrive at their home. As their lives begin to slowly unravel, anxiety and marital tensions and recriminations become the norm. Caché, however, does not concentrate on marital discord, nor does it focus on their young sons sudden resentment and transformation into a hostile alien in their midst. It centers on Georges living with a long buried childhood secret that has come back to haunt him.
The secret we slowly learn involves his betrayal of an Algerian boy who lived with his farmhand father and mother on Georges parents estate. The boy has reappeared forty years later as a soft-spoken, broken, despairing man, Mejid (Maurice Benichou), who lives in a small mean apartment with his son. The past returns with a vengeance, and Georges handles the situation rather arrogantly and insensitively, refusing to accept guilt.
Hanekes film on one level operates as a gripping psychological thriller one that contains only a single act of stunning violence. On a more significant level, Georges childhood behavior suggests in microcosm the 1961 Paris police massacre of protesting Algerians, and, indeed, the Wests relationship towards the Third World in general. People like Majid are invisible, disposable people that Georges and the West refuse to bear responsibility for.
In Caché, however, Majid has succeeded in unsettling the lives of the upper bourgeois, and we perceive that their sense of order is built on very fragile roots. But Hanekes film is far more suggestive than a simple polemical attack on the Wests complacency and guilt: Georges and especially Anne are not villains or reactionary racists. They are people like most of us, who spend little time thinking about the lives of the other and never see that our Western hands may be dirty.
The films sophisticated manipulation of the videotaped images also lifts it far above a relatively predictable political critique. An added fascination of this exquisitely controlled, chilling film is that its hard to get a handle on whats real. Haneke begins the film with a fixed establishing shot that goes on far too long of a Parisian house with cars and the occasional pedestrian passing by. We soon discover that what we are looking it is not Hanekes film but part of the ominous videotape dropped off at Georges and Annes house. For Haneke, all images television news, videotape, his film itself are artificial constructs and acts of manipulation that confuse us about what is actual.
He also sees truth itself as often elusive. The films brilliant final image an ordinary seeming long take of students leaving school, picks up in an almost accidental fashion a revelation of something that could be either terrifying or harmless. Caché is a rarity an engaging, consistently intelligent film that makes the audience work at gleaning the significance of its images.