This is a story that can be told in many countries… In any country, one can find a secret hidden by the “common sense” of that country.
— Michael Haneke, “Interview with Michael Haneke”
His notion of fictional life and real life is always his pet subject, the idea of us living through television, the window of television, instead of living through a window to the world. So our view of the world is truncated. And it’s those two realities, those two perspectives, that interest him, what we live and what we see. And we think we live what we see.
— Juliet Binoche, “Behind the Scenes of Caché
Michael Haneke’s movies are never easy. Instead, they set out complex, multi-layered problems, encountered by ordinary-seeming characters, sometimes worked out but more usually left unresolved. When Haneke describes the alternative, “mainstream” approach as “banal” during an interview on the DVD of Caché, he seems less dismissive than intrigued. He pursues the difficult and the ambiguous with what Daniel Auteuil calls a “neurotic perfectionism.”
While his work has long been admired by critics, it’s only recently that Haneke has found wider distribution in the U.S. The inclusion of Cache on numerous 10-best lists in 2005 led to the release of earlier films on DVD by the ever-adventurous Kino (Der Siebente Kontinent [The Seventh Continent 1989], Benny’s Video , 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls [71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance 1994], and Funny Games ). While Sony’s DVD features only a minimum of extras (the interview with Serge Toubina and a short behind-the-scenes documentary with comments by stars Autieul and Juliete Binoche, as well as producer Margareth Menegoz), the chance it offers for rewatching this film is more than worth the price of admission.
“This is a tale of morality, so to speak,” says Haneke, “dealing with how one lives with guilt.” This even as the moment prompting such guilt is unclear. The movie opens on a static shot of a Parisian neighborhood. Cars and pedestrians pass through the frame, birds flit and traffic sounds in the distance. And then the picture changes, not because what you see changes, but because you hear someone comment on it: a man’s voice asks, “Well?” A woman answers: “Nothing.”
When the video fast-forwards, you realize you’re looking at a tv screen, watching along with Georges (Auteuil) and Anne (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, an unsettling consideration of the shaky foundations of bourgeois security. As the camera takes up this theme, frequently observing Georges, Anne, and their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), from a discrete middle distance, with only their backs or silhouettes in view, you’re left without the usual cues — probing close-ups, swelling music, meaningful glances — to shape reactions to what unfolds. “To tell a story with small pieces that add to the tension,” Haneke says, “that’s… a sort of trick.” Indeed. This story gestures towards assorted dense-pack histories, including the Algerian War, George’s childhood friendship with an Algerian boy, Majid (played in Georges’ memories by Malik Nait Djoudi), and Pierrot’s perception of his parents’ increasingly strained relationship.
The pieces here don’t come together, which means the tension only becomes more excruciating. More videotapes arrive, accompanied by childish drawings of violent acts (“I invented that,” says Haneke, “because the trigger for it all occurred when [Georges] was a child”). As the intrusion becomes more acute, Georges and Anne are less able to discuss it: “It’s a couple that is meant to work out, and everything else is kind of swept under the carpet. It’s not discussed. It’s not witnessed outside the home,” says Haneke. And so they persist.
A television talk-show host (the subject is books), Georges 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, he is used to knowing where it is, how much time he has, when to break. Now undone, now taped without his knowledge, he feels out of control, unknowing, and increasingly angry.
Georges sees in the drawings something oddly familiar, leading him to memories of his childhood. These and bad dreams involve a young Algerian boy, Majid, whose parents worked for Georges’ during the early 1960s and about whom young Georges lied (the extent of the lie is never clear). (In October 1961, during the French war against Algeria, rioting in Paris led 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 see or apologize for his own youthful abuses of Majid. “What did we suppress in order to arrive at where we are?” muses Haneke in the interview.)
Believing that Majid is carrying a grudge for no good reason, Georges tracks him down (played as an adult by Maurice Bénichou). At first polite and inquisitive, Georges soon turns furious, stemming from his fear. “Terrorize me and my family and you’ll regret it,” asserts Georges. “Kicking my ass won’t leave you any wiser about me,” observes Majid. “You have too much to lose.”
Afraid of such loss, Georges withdraws from Anne, saying his efforts to “handle” the situation are not her concern. As Haneke sees it, Anne’s suspicions are grounded in her own effort to protect herself from what seems an unfathomable threat. “We could say that she has no choice,” he notes, “And that would be one more reason to fight, for the false ideal of the family, to keep secrets as they are.” This false idea of family is exactly what keeps Georges from seeing Majid clearly, as he needs to keep him at a distance to preserve not only his own fantasies of past and present.
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 childish selfishness and racism. Haneke says, “It’s not important whether Majid is also “guilty” or not. Because it doesn’t change anything in terms of Georges’ guilt.”) Georges knows a man is supposed to protect his family, but he can only masquerade as a tough guy, clumsily. This even when Majid’s own son (Walid Afkir) arrives at Georges’ office. “You can’t make me feel guilty,” fronts Georges. But the young man knows better, and when asked what he “wants,” he has a ready answer: “I wondered how it feels,” he says quietly, “to have a man’s life on your conscience”
Caché connects Georges’ puny poses with more consequential poses struck by world leaders though television news in the background referring to “coalition countries” and protests. That’s not to say Georges’ actions are inconsequential. His boss suspects trouble when a tape shows up there, and his family begins to fall apart. 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.” He falls into a metaphorical and literal darkness following a startling, 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. As Haneke puts it, “We never ever know what is truth.”
Caché (Hidden) – Theatrical Trailer