At first, it’s not clear what you’re looking at. A camera holds steady on a quiet Parisian street. Cars and pedestrians pass through the frame, birds flit and traffic sounds in the distance. And then a man’s voice from off screen asks, “Well?” A woman answers: “Nothing.”
When the video fast-forwards, you realize you’re looking at a tv screen, watching along with Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche). The tape shows their home, shot from across the street, surveillance-style. It’s arrived at their doorstep without explanation, an indication that they’re being watched. By whom, they don’t know. “Whose idea of a joke would this be?” asks Georges.
Figuring out the answer to this question becomes Georges’ focus throughout Caché, Michael Haneke’s latest unsettling look at the shaky foundations of bourgeois security. So many things are “hidden” here—the identity of the videographer, his or her motives, and perhaps most disconcertingly, Georges’ part in the relationship that is so strangely established here. The camera takes up this theme, frequently watching Georges and Anne from a discrete middle distance, with only their backs or silhouettes in view, so you’re left without the usual cues—probing close-ups, swelling music, meaningful glances—to shape your reactions.
As more tapes arrive, slipped into a plastic shopping bag and accompanied by a childlike drawing of bland figures in duress (eyes wide, throat sliced, blood gushing), Georges and Anne wonder how to handle their upset: should they speak with their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky)? Tell their friends? Go to the police? Disrupt the placid surface of their routine? Eventually, they will do all this, but not before they go through bouts of dread, argument, and deception.
Their responses have to do with their sudden realization that they are not safe. Currently a television talk-show host—the subject is books—Georges typically spends his days being taped, on a stage set where he and his guests are backed by shelves of fake books. As the camera pushes in or pulls back to mark questions and answers, Georges is used to knowing where it is, how much time he has, when to break, when to provide filler. In his new situation as a camera’s object, he feels out of control, unknowing, and increasingly angry.
At the same time, though he won’t admit this to his wife, Georges sees in the drawings something oddly familiar, leading him to think the tapes have to do with him, and more specifically, his childhood. He has dreams of these days, including a young Algerian boy, Majid (played in Georges’ memories by Malik Nait Djoudi), whose parents worked for Georges’ during the early 1960s (and in October 1961, as the French war in Algeria had raged for seven years, Algerians in Paris rioted, leading to an immediately repressed incident in which some 200 Algerian protestors drowned in the Seine as the police were trying to contain them, by beating and shooting). As Georges here becomes a kind of embodiment of historical guilt, he is also unable to articulate his concerns or apologize for his own youthful abuses of Majid: indeed, Georges feels like the victim.
First Georges seeks confirmation for his hunch from his elderly mother (Annie Girardot). Though she and her husband had first taken in Majid and then sent him away for an infraction he had not, in fact, committed, she has no memory of these events that loom so large for Georges. (Her forgetfulness is both literal and metaphorical.) Believing that his expulsion so long ago has now resulted in years of pent-up rage and vengefulness, Georges tracks down the adult Majid (now played by Maurice Bénichou), to confront him, at first inquisitive and then, when Majid professes ignorance (“You’re the last person I expected at my door”), fury. “Terrorize me and my family and you’ll regret it,” asserts Georges, posturing in his host’s grim, dark kitchen. “Kicking my ass won’t leave you any wiser about me,” observes Majid. “You have too much to lose.”
He’s right, though Georges is so frustrated at this point that he seems poised to act. It’s hard to say whether Georges ever realizes that his own lies as a child (which led to Majid’s removal) were premised on fear of loss, tangled up in fear of difference as well as childish cruelty and pervasive racism. Threatening violence hardly appears easy for Georges, but even his uncertainty looks sinister. Georges knows the expectations (a man is supposed to protect his family), but his self-doubt leads him to masquerade as a tough guy, clumsily. This even when Majid’s own son (Walid Afkir) arrives at Georges’ office, a visit the older man tries desperately to put off. “You can’t make me feel guilty,” fronts Georges. But the young man pushes forward, insistent: “I wanted to know,” he says quietly, “What it was like, a man’s life on your conscience”
Caché allows connections between Georges’ puny poses and those more broadly consequential poses of world leaders (television news in the background refers to “coalition countries” and protests), but that’s not to say Georges’ actions are inconsequential. He decides at first to hide his past (and his visit with Majid) from Anne, who understands this as distrust. When his boss gets wind of the whole business (a tape shows up at work), Georges cites the 1961 drowning and claims the victim Majid has developed a “pathological hatred of my family.” And when neither parent speaks with Pierrot about their concerns, the boy is caught up in a wash of tensions and short tempers, without any context, which leads him to assume the worst about his role in a family meltdown.
None of these crises leads to resolution, only more turmoil, guilt, and resentment. The surveillance in itself becomes so threatening that Georges is unable to make sense of it as a “message.” (It’s telling that when he and Anne attend a swim meet where Pierrot competes, you notice the smiling videotaping family members next to them, as if this diurnal activity means something it doesn’t.) Georges falls into a metaphorical and literal darkness following one terrible moment of violence (to which he is invited to “be present”). His inability to parse his experience leaves him stunned and afraid. And as Caché connects fathers and sons, histories and responsibilities, fears and accusations, you’re left to do your own parsing.