When David Lynch plagued a married couple with covert videotapes in Lost Highway eight years ago, he knew people would be creeped out. Today, such surveillance meshes unnoticed with the fabric of everyday life, as it does with unsettling formal wit in the beginning of Michael Haneke’s Caché.
Credits run over a single shot of a nondescript door front on a Parisian side street, a shot typical of security-camera surveillance. Voices squabble in the background; then a cut reveals that the image is playing on a screen within the screen, part of a tape sent anonymously to Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche). Such images ordinarily provide bourgeois citizens with a sense of security, shielding them from threats outside their nests, whether real or imagined. In Haneke’s chilling scenario, the images instead unravel their complacency, thrusting them into the alien terrain of their memories and experiences.
Too bad neither character is remotely sympathetic. Haneke has a knack for putting unpleasant people in sadistic circumstances and thereby arousing neither pity nor gratification, only clinical fascination. In Code inconnu (2000) and La pianiste (2001), he follows postmodern lab rats through mazes of sinister social signifiers, or of their own twisted desires. Here, Georges, himself a video creation (he hosts a kind of Gallic Charlie Rose talk show), comes off as a spineless, middlebrow mediocrity, and Binoche adds to her repertoire of cold-blooded and unforgiving spouses. Even their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), is a spoiled little shit. The videos, accompanied by sinister, crude drawings of a butchered chicken, explode their semblance of domestic tranquility. Good riddance.
Georges, though, has something to hide. The videos draw him back to the past, leading him to the apartment of Majid (Maurice Benichou), a childhood companion. The orphaned son of Algerians working on Georges’s family’s farm, Majid was an unwelcome presence in five-year-old Georges’s life. So he was taken away.
What happened? Georges’s flashbacks to a sinister scene with Majid and a hatchet and the present-day snatches of conversation between him and the now broken Majid suggest childhood terrors and sadistic games. Perhaps more to the point is the fate of Majid’s parents: they were killed in 1961 along with hundreds of other Algerian demonstrators by the Paris police. It’s one of France’s dirty little secrets (it sure puts the recent riots there in perspective), suppressed, like Georges’s guilt, for decades.
Should the actions of a child who hasn’t reached the Catholic age of reason be equated with the crimes of a nation? Perhaps so if, like Georges, the child has never grown up. In Haneke’s world, neither conscience nor redemption exists, only the gaze of a medium that discloses secrets and trivialities with equal indifference. Caché ends as it begins, with a long, Antonioni-like shot. Who is shooting it, who will watch, what it means, remains hidden.
Written and directed by Michael Haneke | With Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Benichou, Annie Girardot, Walid Afkir, and Lester Makedonsky | A Sony Pictures Classic release | French | 121 minutes
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