I saw Michael Haneke’s Caché (“Hidden”) in Toronto, and then again this week. What seemed like a strong movie just got stronger, although it’s not my absolute favorite of his films (that would be Code Unknown ). Caché’s been extensively written about and so I shan’t “review” the movie here. Instead, I thought I’d throw together a small grab-bag of ideas, mostly those of others which happened to resonate with me.
Basic plot: An educated middle-class couple start receiving surveillance videotapes which suggest that they are being watched. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is a TV literary show host (do we even have such a genre in the U.S.?), and Anne (Juliette Binoche) is a book editor. This leads to the unlocking of repressed memories of Georges’ childhood when he may have lied about an Algerian boy living with his family, thus having the boy sent away. The family attempts to find out: who is sending the videotapes, and why? I’ve tried hard to include no spoilers in this post, although if a discussion sprouts in the comments, they may be impossible to avoid. A few points:
The movie is amazingly, intricately layered. It’s an art-thriller, a family drama, an excoriation of bourgeois hypocrisy and myopia, an allegory of the post-9/11 world, and a film about personal and national conscience.
It is a thriller that is a critique of thrillers: It avoids use of any of the techniques we associate with the genre. There are no fast or hand-held camera movements; instead, the camera observes quietly, motionlessly, almost icily. There is no music soundtrack to cue us into feeling scared or uneasy. There are no odd and flagrantly subjective camera angles to enhance suspense, and there is no “exciting” editing to whip us into a frenzy. Haneke scrupulously eschews these blatantly manipulative effects.
Robin Wood’s excellent article on the film in Artforum is alas not on-line. Here he is comparing and contrasting Haneke and Hitchcock:
Haneke’s acute awareness of Hitchcock is beyond question. But what he has taken from Hitchcock amounts to little more than basic plot features, from which he embarks on journeys fundamentally different in aim and nature: The murder in Benny's Video (1992) recalls Psycho (similar placement—about a third of the way into the film—similar abruptness and shock, followed by a cleanup sequence); Funny Games (1997) relates obliquely to The Birds, which Hitchcock said was about complacency (Haneke’s young killers remain as inexplicable as the bird attacks and the elder is even credited with having supernatural powers); and the mother-daughter relationship in The Piano Teacher (2001) bears a strong resemblance to that in Marnie. Caché is clearly linked to Rear Window, with “watching” replaced by “being watched,” the story now told from the viewpoint of the spied-on, though the “crime” is of a very different nature and its perpetrator couldn't be arrested for it...But in all other respects Haneke can be seen as the anti-Hitchcock . Hitch’s frequently expressed aim of "putting the audience through it" was consistently linked to identification techniques. The spectator of his films is drawn, helpless, into the narrative by enforced and intimate identification with the key character (James Stewart in Vertigo, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds); we see everything from a single viewpoint. Haneke, in direct contrast, forbids identification altogether; we look at, not with, the characters.
Here’s a terrific Cinemarati discussion of the film. Included is this incisive observation by Acquarello:
...Haneke operates as a scientist, not as a humanist (although one is not mutually exclusive of the other)...Another one in this filmmaking vein is Shohei Imamura; they both have a very clinical view of society as an organism, and their approach is a variation of scientific method: introduce a catalyst -> observe the organism’s behavior to the catalyst -> record results.
According to Haneke, his films are intended as “polemical statements against the [unthinking] American cinema in its disempowerment of the spectator.” In place of what he sees as simplistic explanations, a “clarifying distance” will transform the viewer from “simple consumer” to active evaluator: “The more radically answers are denied to him, the more likely he is to find his own.” In truth, this prescription for battling psychic evils associated with the Hollywood system—slow the pacing, deny subjective identification, refuse to tie up loose ends—has had numerous proponents; at times Haneke sounds like an anti–humanist version of André Bazin, champion of long-take perceptual ambiguity as practiced by Renoir, Welles, Bresson, et al.
A.O. Scott wrote: “The initial shot of the movie is answered by the last, which demands close attention and contains the intriguing suggestion that the real story has been hidden all along - that it has been driven not by the noisy public conflict between Arabs and Frenchmen, but rather by the quiet, perpetual war between fathers and sons.” Soon after my first viewing, I thought that the question of who was sending the videotapes was a MacGuffin, a pretext, and also meant as a send-up of thriller formulas which use pat surprise endings for effect. I was wrong: Though I do think Haneke is critiquing thriller formulas, I think the question (and answer) is important.