Friday, September 19, 2014

Caché (2005)

Hidden, France / Austria / Germany / Italy / USA, 117 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Christian Berger
Editors: Michael Hudecek, Nadine Muse
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou, Annie Girardot, Bernard Le Coq, Walid Afkir, Lester Makedonsky, Daniel Duval, Nathalie Richard, Denis Podalydès, Aïssa Maïga

Written and directed by Michael Haneke, released in the UK under the name Hidden, and formally taking on the qualities of a thriller, it can't come as much surprise that Caché is a bit of a puzzle-box movie. In fact, in its premise, it bears a remarkable resemblance to another puzzle-box movie of eight years earlier, David Lynch's Lost Highway. Georges and Anne Laurent (played by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are an upper middle class Parisian couple with an adolescent son—smug bourgeoisie, not to put too fine a point on it. They begin to experience a subtle form of harassment. Someone is leaving videotapes accompanied by grotesque and cryptic drawings on their doorstep. The videotapes show hours of the exterior of their home, a static image shot from a stationary camera, with occasional traffic and pedestrians passing across the frame—even Georges himself at one point, who can't remember ever seeing a camera. The pictures show figures with blood.

The mystery is mostly irrelevant in the strategy of the movie, but I will register the usual point about spoilers. It doesn't take long before Georges figures out what it's about, and what really lies at the center of this story: relations between his family of origin and an Algerian couple they hired as servants. The couple disappeared in a historical atrocity now known as the "Paris massacre of 1961." In the backstory of Caché the result is that Georges's family is left with the couple's orphaned son, Majid, who is about Georges's age. At first they make plans to take custody of him but a 6-year-old Georges resents the intrusion on his place in the family and makes up stories about Majid that may or may not have resulted in Majid being "sent away," to an obviously inferior fate.

That is the specter haunting Georges now—or annoying him, more accurately, because he specifically refuses to take any responsibility for the events, which at any rate he argues are in the past. Haneke has said in interviews that he wanted to make a movie focused on individuals living with guilt, but that the historical events he landed on here remain so explosive they threatened to throw the focus more onto national and international politics rather than a single family, and man. The explanation is thus very brief, buried in passing at the center of the movie, even as the movie continues to fuel its charged air of mystery. Though it is dangled before us all through, the mystery of who is conducting the campaign of harassment remains a mystery to the end—indeed, the famous last shot only confuses the matter further, as intended. There is no answer to this mystery. That's the mystery, and that's the spoiler. Get ready for no good resolution—it's arguably the Haneke specialty anyway.

At some point, however, even as Georges is explicitly the victim in the distraction drama, the information parceled out to us about Georges and Majid, and Georges's behavior when the videotapes actually lead him to a confrontation with Majid decades since they have seen one another—and indeed, all of Georges's behavior—gradually reveal Georges as something of a casual monster. His wife is understandably a nervous wreck under the psychological assault, yet Georges only adds to her stress and torment, coming clean with her about his past very slowly and incompletely, even when it's obvious to both of them that he is hiding something.

Georges is a wretched person, the worst by far in the whole picture (with the possible exception of the phantom conducting the campaign, call it "Haneke"), and he only becomes more reprehensible as it goes along. This is another recommended wrap-up job for Wikipedia because the 1961 Paris massacre at the center of the story is remarkably brutal and callous, with bodies disposed of in the Seine River, conducted by someone later convicted for Vichy war crimes. "For several weeks, unidentified corpses were discovered along the banks of the river," one report notes. It's estimated that over 200 died in one day. If movies by Michael Haneke can be reduced to a message, and I think surprisingly often they can, the message here is that colonialism is dehumanizing to everyone involved.

Georges's tricky complicity is thus nicely limned by Haneke. Of course you can't hold a 6-year-old responsible for telling the kinds of lies that 6-year-olds tell. It's never clear here that Georges's lies had anything to do with Majid being sent away anyway. But what can you say about a 46-year-old man, comfortably ensconced in a life where he is the host of a public television book review show, who can't show compassion for Majid's situation? It's repulsive, and when Haneke insists in interviews that this is universal human behavior, not behavior specific to circumstances such as culture or nation, I don't think he's far wrong. After all, what can you say about grown men and women in the United States who travel to Texas to protest the humane treatment of children? What can you say about Michael Brown and Ferguson?

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