Film Review of Caché

Film Review

by Norman Douglas





Directed by:   Michael Haneke

Screenplay:   Michael Haneke

Cinematography:   Christian Berger





"What people do officially is nothing compared with what they do in secret. People usually associate creativity with works of art, but what are works of art alongside the creative energy displayed by everyone a thousand times a day: seething unsatisfied desires, daydreams in search of a foothold in reality, feelings at once confused and luminously clear, ideas and gestures presaging nameless upheavals."


{-- Raoul Vaneigem, {The Revolution of Everyday Life}, 1967}


The other night, two workers from my local bookstore strong-armed a few of us into watching Mike Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's 1999 novel, Thumbsucker. A couple of months ago, I went to see Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers as soon as it opened in Rhinebeck, NY. Around the same time, I bought Gus Van Sant's Last Days on DVD. What do these films -- and a lot of indie films I've seen lately -- have in common with Michael Haneke's direction of Caché, from a script he wrote himself? It seems like there's a bandwagon storming through the souls of filmmakers these days, and the driver of this wagon is busily touting the notion that silence is the new dialogue, in the same way -- as I once heard an artist quip -- that painting is the new drawing. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate a film without cops and sociopaths as much as anybody who tears tickets at places like Film Forum (as I did, back when it was on Watts Street). But I'm not convinced that the absence of words ably reproduces the everyday lives of we who exist outside the constructs of those who would project images ostensibly designed for our reflection. On the other hand, despite what I perceived as unrealistic flaws in a film that tackles the way we define the Real, Caché makes silence its subject, so that even what gets spoken echoes with silence.

Silence seems rare in the lives of my peers, colleagues, and acquaintances. During moments of catharsis and transformation, most of us find ourselves wishing we had either said what was said better than we said it or, had simply kept our mouths shut. The silence in Caché is amplified by the static cinematography. Beginning with a shot of a Parisian town house that lasts for the three or four minutes of a credit sequence unraveled line-by-line, like the screen read-out of a speed typist, Austrian director Haneke relies on cinematograher   Christian Berger to ensure that one never forget that we are engaged in the act of watching. As the credits end and an unseen speaker reveals that she's watching the same image as the audience, we're reminded that listening goes hand in hand with watching. A male voice responds. An "off-screen" voice, out of the frame, hidden, caché. The camera pulls away, enlarging our perspective to reveal that Georges (  Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliet Binoche), husband and wife, have been watching the same static video image of their home as the movie audience. "It goes on for two hours this way," Anne tells Georges, in the filmmaker's wry wink to the audience.

Menaced by a series of camcorder-grade surveillance tapes delivered anonymously to their home, Georges and Anne contact the police, who refuse to act until someone commits an actual crime. Like all good film characters, this official apathy launches Georges into detective mode. Though his command of cinematic device and artifice -- of silence and visual stillness -- impose an atmosphere of suspense on the viewer that some critics compare favorably with Hitchcock, Haneke clearly has no interest in delivering the kind of standard entertainment for which Hitchcock became "notorious." Repeatedly maintaining his duty to protect wife and child, Georges seems more driven by the need to protect himself. As the videotapes show up on their doorstep, accompanied by childlike black and white drawings of caricatures that spout red blood -- red crayon applied so violently to paper that it has the look of a stain such as the Pontius Pilate could not wash out -- these images reel Georges in ever deeper, returning him to his childhood home and its memories, memories that haunt his dreams. Discounting the possibility that their thirteen year old son, Pierrot (  Lester Makedonsky), is playing a nasty prank, Georges privately suspects someone from his past, someone he believes he has forgotten. This someone is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the son of their Algerian caretakers. Georges' parents tried to adopt Majid when Majid's parents fell victim to the police massacre of Algerian protestors in Paris on October 17, 1961.

Essentially built around the characters' memories of that day, when police, headed by the Vichy collaborator  --  -- , brutally murdered as many as two hundred people, dumping scores of bodies into the River Seine, Haneke sees no reason to revisit the topological scene of the crime. Because French authorities viciously and effectively censored news of the massacre from the press, the public, and the international community, most of France denied the murders ever took place. Even among Algerians (which nation then stood on the verge of winning a particularly bloody war of colonial independence that would end the following March), an accurate account of the dead continues unresolved. What Haneke addresses with Caché has to do with the way that personal memory colors perception -- just as perception shapes memory -- creating an illusion out of the reality known as the present, here and now -- to say nothing of the past.

Real life is terrorized by the sensation of survival that everyday events take on in our collective striving for history; learned needs lurk in the shadows of every choice, squashing the persistent desire for peace and love. Today, despite the empirical fact that we continue to enact history, the vast majority experiences that history while watching it occur, as if history could pass us by; we notice every little thing and, taking note, choose every little effect upon the self. Although great catastrophes and upheavals are beamed almost instantly around the world, the ability to connect and disconnect has more to do with one's willingness to do so than anything else. Like highway rubbernecking, electronic rubbernecking depends on one's inner state of mind, not the degree of mayhem and carnage present in the wreck at which one gawks. Stuck in traffic on the way to work with no more sick days and only AM lite music differs from being stuck in that same traffic in a VW van with a handful of friends making a cross country trip; neither case compares to riding through that gridlock as the parent or child of a person in that same crash. Disaster television, like all TV and, by extension, all of daily life (little of which we can imagine becoming history) only impresses us to the extent that we have prepared ourselves for particular impressions of peculiar events; memory colors perception. Haneke does not critique the media: he investigates our actions and inaction as a whole, using media and media personalities to remind us of the reality behind the curtain, a reality towards which we tend to pay no attention.

Georges, as host of a "public" television show devoted to literature (modeled after the commercially successful, Apostrophe, where I saw Charles Bukowski lionize his host: "You guys are great! I've never been on TV in America! And I love all the wine! And the women!" a memory that colors my perception of the film...), depends financially on this video version of life's events