Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hidden Depths


Most modern thrillers start with a bang, but that’s certainly not the case with Michael Haneke’s “Caché”, a coolly elegant, challenging French mystery movie released in 2005. No way, José. Instead, this insidious film opens with a lingering, static shot of a nondescript, gated townhouse in a bourgeois Parisian neighbourhood. We watch in silence as a woman leaves through the front door. We observe nameless pedestrians strolling by. We note the parked cars in the side street, for in truth nothing much happens for a few minutes. Eventually we hear a couple talking to each other, though we do not see them. Finally, the image abruptly blurs, and then begins to fast forward and we realise that we’ve been watching a videotape, along with the couple that owns the house. It’s been sent to them anonymously and they are as much in the dark as we are. In this way, “Caché” grabs our attention from the very first frame (literally).

Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), the successful host of a literary talk show on television, lives in a comfortable house with his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book publisher, and their teenage son Pierrot. They appear to be the perfect (happy) family, but cracks appear when Georges starts to receive surveillance tapes of his family and alarmingly gruesome drawings from a stalker who seems to know a great deal about their lives. As the tapes contain no direct threats, the police refuse to help, leaving Georges to follow a clue in one of them, which leads him to the modest apartment of an Algerian man named Majid (Maurice Bénichou), whose parents worked for Georges’ family when he was a young boy. This meeting raises questions about Georges’ childhood, which he does not want to discuss, not even with his wife.

"Welcome to the house of fun"

In fact, nothing is ever as it seems in this film, which was aptly translated as “Hidden” for the English-speaking market with a double meaning – hidden camera (camera obscura, if you will) and hidden guilt. From that very first scene, the viewer can never be sure of what he is watching: is it the film’s (semi-reliable) narrative or another tape recorded by the unknown voyeur? Before long, we feel as off-balance and confused as Georges and Anne. As their trust in each other crumbles, we also realise that the director’s perspective is untrustworthy, resulting in an ever increasing sense of dread and paranoia. The same, indistinguishable long distance view is used on numerous occasions, but only as the scene develops does it become clear whether the shot is “live or Memorex”. Haneke is subtly, but effectively warning us that we should be suspicious of any expectations we may have or indeed any “reality” that we are shown – it’s what’s under the surface that really counts.

The movie is all the more powerful for the secrets that it keeps and most of its inner tensions are left unresolved apart from one brief and shockingly visceral moment. As it happens, the director is not the only one holding out on people, as Georges informs Anne that he might know who is behind the terrifying campaign, but refuses to say any more. It becomes increasingly likely that it pertains to some unspoken and long suppressed event, but Georges keeps the truth hidden in the same way that Haneke conceals the movie’s point of view, its political references and even the identity of the perpetrator.

"Video killed the radio star"

It’s a masterclass in how to unnerve your audience, not through what you show, but what is hidden from view. The tapes sent to George contain nothing threatening, but their menace arises not from their content, but the fact that they are being filmed. In traditional European fashion, not much seems to take place, but this slow burning study in buried guilt and sub-conscious prejudice steadily ratchets up the tension and develops an atmosphere of approaching danger. The film might not scare you out of your skin, but it will most certainly get under your skin. While Haneke clearly wants to deliver a political message, he never allows himself to be distracted from the business of building suspense, resulting in a taut, unsettling psychological thriller of the utmost originality. He manages to imbue the most ordinary of moments with a feeling of vague dread, making use of disquieting devices and sinister hesitations, as he repeatedly subverts the audience’s expectations.

As with many previous Haneke films, such as “Funny Games” and “Time of the Wolf”, there is a sense that something dire could occur at any time. Another common premise in his movies is the comfortable life of a complacent, middle-class family being threatened by an outside force. In this case, the simple fact that someone is watching them is enough to shatter their smug world. Their contented existence would have continued in its merry way, except for the disturbing fact that it was being observed by persons unknown. Although Socrates believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, the other side of the coin is disquieting in its own way.

"Can you guess what it is yet?"

Consequently, the mystery of who sent the tapes is of almost secondary importance, as the impact on the Laurent family becomes the most significant issue. Previously unimagined weaknesses in the fabric of Georges and Anne’s marriage emerge, as their well-dressed façade begins to fracture under the pressure of untold secrets. There is no real love or sentiment with this couple, just the cosy chemistry of a shared existence. The fragility of their ideal relationship is revealed and matters are made worse when Pierrot’s simmering discontent causes him to accuse his mother of having an affair.

When the intimidating tapes start to arrive, Georges initially seems almost paralysed by the need to carry on as if nothing had disturbed his glamorous media life. The deflating of his self-importance seems almost as painful to him as the notion that his family is under attack. Aficionados of French cinema have long appreciated Daniel Auteuil as a great actor and he delivers a magnificently compelling performance here as a man who cannot acknowledge his past – not because he thinks that it didn’t happen, but because he does not appreciate its significance.

"It wasn't me"

It’s an ambiguous, and in many ways unsympathetic, role, as Georges simply refuses to accept any responsibility or express any regret for his previous actions, which is hardly surprising, as he does not even connect emotionally with the present. He is an arrogant, self-justifying man, who has repressed his youthful cruelty for a long time. His anger lies just beneath the surface, so when he feels under pressure, he reacts with (racist) aggression, repeating the behaviour that started the cycle and adding insult to injury.

As his more balanced wife, Juliette Binoche is equally superb with her subtle, but utterly convincing portrayal of a woman who comes to realise that she no longer understands a husband who cannot be honest with her. Anne is one of those beautiful women who make everything seem effortless, balancing a flourishing career with an enviable private life, where she is a loving wife, a dutiful mother and a gracious hostess. It’s a sensitive display of bemusement and betrayed trust, and Anne is shocked to witness Georges’ emerging secrets and violent reaction.

"Juliette Bravo"

Haneke’s characters are never easy to like, yet it’s impossible not to empathise with the Laurents’ predicament and their growing anxiety. Initially, we cannot help but relate to this seemingly decent couple, as their perfect lives come under threat, but gradually we begin to question the basis of their conceited, self-righteous existence, as it appears that Georges’ casual cruelty as a child has returned to haunt him.

Ultimately, “Caché” is a story about guilt and how this is denied – on both a personal and collective level. The events not only re-open old wounds that Georges had long since repressed, reminding him of the harm he inflicted on his Algerian “brother”, but also highlight the issue of the French nation’s collective responsibility for the mistreatment of Algerian immigrants. As Haneke said, “this movie is a tale of morality dealing with how one lives with guilt”. In the case of Georges, the answer is to deny any responsibility, so when he meets Majid’s son, he says, “You’ll never give me a bad conscience. I’m not to blame”.

"It's such a perfect day"

While the film is almost claustrophobically personal, it is fascinatingly broad in scope, as it addresses the universal theme of the West’s responsibility for the damage done while colonising Third World countries. On the face of it, Georges is an educated, enlightened liberal, but his response to the tapes is to accuse the foreigner in his midst, thus exposing the latent fear and hatred of the Muslims that lies not very far below his urbane exterior. This is an obvious metaphor for France’s inability to accept accountability for the way it has handled its indigenous Algerian population. We hear that Majid’s parents never came back from a march in Paris, which is a reference to a shameful night in October 1961 (“la nuit noire”), when the police massacred up to two hundred Algerians during a peaceful demonstration.

The film’s social statement is unmistakable, but it is so skillfully woven into the fabric of the story that it never feels like a lecture. Indeed, the subject matter proved eerily prescient, when the movie’s release preceded the riots in the Parisian banlieues by only a few weeks, once again demonstrating the problems caused by the divide between those who enjoy the fruits of a capitalist society and those who are consigned to its fringes. There are parallels with other recent conflicts, such as the ongoing struggles in Iraq, which is actually shown on the enormous TV screen in the background of the Laurent’s living room. Needless to say, the unworried couple remains oblivious to the deaths announced by the latest news bulletin, only reinforcing the blithe indifference felt towards those less fortunate than them/us.

"Is it because I is black?"

Yes, I do mean “them and us”, for one of Haneke’s great strengths is the way that he uses the camera to engage the audience, so that it is impossible to remain a passive participant. At first, he makes the viewer complicit in the voyeuristic pleasure in watching Georges disintegrate on receipt of the creepy tapes, turning us all into accomplices for the crimes being played out on screen, as his destructive gaze invites us to partake in the remorseless campaign of terror. Then, by creating sufficient suspicion of Majid in Georges’ mind, the film forces us to confront our own attitude to immigrants in the post-colonial world. In the same way as the camera, we edit our memories in order to spare our conscience.

With its sparse, economical manner, the film confronts viewers head-on with some issues that are profoundly uncomfortable. Haneke is just as uncompromising in the way that he does not mollycoddle his audience. He glories in ambiguity, leaving the audience to think for itself, pretty much letting people draw their own conclusions. He explained this approach thus:

I like the multiplicity of books, because each book is different in the mind of each reader. It's the same with this film - if three hundred people are in a cinema watching it, they will all see a different film, so in a way there are thousands of different versions of “Hidden”. The point being that, despite what TV shows us, and what the news stories tell us, there is never just one truth, there is only personal truth.

"He's behind you"

Frequently described as the “conscience” of European cinema, Michael Haneke is a provocative film-maker with a justified reputation for stark, sometimes brutal, films that will make heavy demands of their audience. His trademarks include tremendously long static shots, no dramatic musical scores and brief outbursts of extreme violence. “Caché” is possibly his most watchable work, and though it is still an austere piece, it manages to explore serious themes of guilt and complacency without stinting on the suspense - demanding yet accessible. Critics have long acclaimed Haneke with the Cannes Film Festival giving him the Best Director prize in 2005 for “Caché” and this year rewarding his latest film “The White Ribbon” with the coveted Palme d’Or.

With its voyeuristic theme, “Caché” inevitably recalls Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, albeit the perpetrator’s intentions are much less benign than good old James Stewart and Haneke has a far more political agenda than “the master of suspense”. A better comparison may be David Cronenberg’s powerful “A History of Violence”, which is also about a man with a secret history hidden from his family, whose capacity for violence emerges when under attack. Like “Caché”, the fate of the “violent” hero is similarly uncertain when the film ends, though at least we are reasonably sure of the identity of the “bad guy”.

"My life's not an open book"

Haneke, on the other hand, does not play by the traditional rules of the thriller and never explicitly identifies who has been sending the tapes. He very cleverly uses the audience’s greed for a neat answer to encourage any preconceptions we may have. The desire to know “whodunit” leads us down many false roads, making us Georges’ partners in crime when he flings out false accusations. This absence of closure may frustrate some, but is an essential element in the film’s success. Haneke is unapologetic about not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s:

I'm not going to give anyone the answer. If you think it's Majid, Pierrot, Georges, the malevolent director, God himself, the human conscience - all these answers are correct. But if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn't understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions? I look at it as productive frustration. Films that are entertainments give simple answers, but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more answers at the end, then surely it is a richer experience.

It is therefore logical that the closing scene, a long shot of multi-cultural pupils conversing on school steps, is defiantly ambiguous, but it feels like a natural conclusion to a film that aims to prove that there are no easy answers. If you watch closely, you will observe two children casually talking in the background, giving a tantalizing hint of something truly horrible. But is this really the solution? Is it the end of the family’s torment? Or the birth of another revenge plot? Maybe Haneke is once again toying with our perceptions by alluding to a vision of modern France at peace with itself, when it could be yet another videotape. Whatever the answer, the ending has the desired effect of leaving the viewer feeling as paranoid and distrustful as the characters, underlining the need to think more deeply about who the real victims are in this tale.

"Silent night"

Like the best French films, “Caché” is open to numerous interpretations. It is a movie of rare, penetrating intelligence that will leave you considering the many issues that it raises long after the closing credits have rolled. Haneke has produced a wonderfully edgy thriller, while addressing important themes like guilt, racism, recent French history and even the art of cinema, so it would be churlish to also expect him to present us with the “answer to life, the universe and everything else”. As he said, “It's the duty of art to ask questions, not to provide answers. And if you want a clearer answer, I'll have to pass”.

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