The Outsider – Caché

My friend Jonny Hutchings is a film buff.  Film school, film career—he’s got cred.  I do not have the cred.  BUT, I’ve always liked the idea of dialoguing with experts and insiders about things I’m largely ignorant of.  So I asked Jonny if he wanted to rap about a movie.  He suggested we watch Michael Haneke’s “Caché.”

Jonny delivered a thoughtful response and I made an allusion comparing Haneke to the character of Mr. Big from R. Kelly’s infamous ‘Down Low’ video.

WARNING: The film is riveting, and as there are some spoilers in our commentary, I suggest you watch before you read.

^^^

Jonny’s thoughts:

Caché certainly is not a film for everyone. Obviously, it is not the kind that is shown in the big multiplex cinemas but only in small ones with “special” audiences. Haneke knows pretty well which type of people will be watching his film. His image of them (us) is one of generally well-educated people who would never consider themselves to be xenophobic or even racist. He thinks of his audience to consist mainly of politically liberal people, people who probably disagree with the current political tendency to keep strangers out of our “western” countries — people who don’t agree with closing the frontiers of the US, Europe and of Australia to emigrants and even refugees. Moreover, Haneke considers his audience to generally like arts and culture, just like his characters Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Julliette Bonoche) do. He considers us to be people of vaguely the same class as his protagonists with similar interests. I think it’s important to note this, because I think he’s speaking to his audience with this film.

Caché’s message is not about the stalking-plot. It is about just these people, about Georges and Anne, but also about Caché‘s audience, about us. Much as he did in Code Inconnu, he plays tricks on his audience from the onset, by putting us in the position of “voyeur,” and all of the sociopolitical ramifications that come along with it. It’s been said that Haneke “hates his audience,” and I couldn’t disagree more. He simply knows who his audience is, and he correctly assumes that they want to be challenged in thought-provoking ways both thematically and structurally (how else does one explain the jarring, abrupt cuts in an otherwise seamlessly paced film?).

Michael Haneke’s brilliant, challenging masterpiece begins with an outstanding solitary opening shot. At first it looks like a well framed long shot; then, he lets it linger for a while and you might think it’s a POV shot. Is someone spying on the house in the center of the frame? Then, you realize it’s a prerecorded videotape. The seamless integration of those three readings of one shot perfectly sets the stage for a thoughtful mediation on voyeurism and the age-old self-reflexive idea of the viewer being an active participant in the process by “watching.”

Then, Cache becomes a clinical, psychological and social study of a respectable individual in European society. Then, it morphs into a study of a larger contemporary European segment of its population. We start seeing themes of guilt, post-9/11 paranoia, and social responsibility develop, and we find out that a central character has a shaky past that correlates with the Paris massacre of 1961 (this is a Haneke film, after all). Then the film ends with a great, ambiguous medium static shot of a high school that will make you think for hours hence (again, as voyeurs, where do we look? Where is the point of action? The initial lack of a focused gaze can be frustrating to some, intriguingly challenging to others). But be careful: if you think too much about the plot, about “whodunit,” you’re missing the point. Sure, those things are fascinating to think about, and Haneke gives you plenty of clues to chew on (hell, even Ebert famously wrote about these clues), but the story is really a Macguffin about something much deeper — which is Haneke’s bold genius at work. This is his indictment of French bourgeois culture, and how we “hide” ourselves from the mistakes and despicable things we do. We avoid accountability at all costs. Georges’ final moments are directly symbolic of that.

I’ll put it this way: everyone wants to know who sent the tapes. Haneke, when pressed with this question, slyly answered, “It was definitely one of the characters.” He’s absolutely right. It was him. He delivered a tape to France called “Cache” (hidden), so its citizens can hold the mirror up to their collective faces. It’s a coy Brechtian clue, and a fantastic piece of self-reflexivity.

^^^

My thoughts:

Caché is that rare film in which an auteur with an idiosyncratic vision and discriminating aesthetic standards is able to realize his ideals for a film while maintaining an incredibly high production value.  Your senses tell you that you’re watching a Hollywood movie, not some budget indie film.  Yet, at least in hindsight, your intellect realizes that this is the kind of film which appeals to an audience beyond the ken of studio executives paralyzed by a fear of their bottom line.  It’s not only not a sequel to a movie based on a comic book, it’s an enigma—a film that raises more questions than it answers yet manages to keep viewers fascinated, even while consistently leaving them longing for a resolution that never comes.

The suspense Haneke delivers is not of the octane conjured by thrillers like The Departed or The Silence of The Lambs.  His is a film rooted in a realism we recognize instantly and with unease as being rooted in the reality of life in a world where answers are sometimes not to be had no matter how badly we want them, a world where relationships are strained beyond necessity by the stubbornness and imperfection of people who are not characters reading a script that conveniently instructs them to take their bad choices only so far and then no further.

Caché centers on a Parisian couple, Georges and Anne, who begin receiving anonymous videotapes in plastic bags on their doorstep.  At first these are hours-long clips of their house taken from the street.  Later scenes document Georges’ childhood home and, in one instance, a harrowing interaction between Georges’ and Majid, a man who formerly lived with Georges and his family when both men were children and Majid’s parents, Algerian immigrants, were working for Georges’ father and mother.  We learn that when the young Majid’s parents were killed in an anti-immigrant uprising Georges’ parents were on the verge of adopting him.  This plan was derailed by Georges who, six years old at the time, fabricated a series of stories about Majid which caused his parents to send the boy away.

Decades later, Georges is convinced it is Majid who is terrorizing him out of a desire for revenge.  Or is it Majid’s own son, now in his early twenties himself?  Through a series of increasingly hostile actions and interrogations, Georges attempts to get to the bottom of who is stalking him and his family.  He never does.  Nor does he repent of his childhood actions, consistently defending himself to Anne.  Until the end, I assumed he would do one or the other.

Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil are fantastic as Anne and Georges.  Binoche is utterly believable in her role as a frustrated wife whose husband has taken it upon himself to fix single-handedly a situation concerning both of them.  When Georges initially suspects Majid, he tells Anne that he “has a hunch” as to their stalker’s identity.  When she presses him for details he refuses to tell her more.  In the subsequent exchange she takes him to task, asking if this is his idea of mutual trust in a committed relationship.  We see the threadbare fabric of their relationship unraveling.  Auteuil is masterful in his portrayal of a man filled with anxiety and emotion yet unable to express it.  A man used to having things make sense who now, out of his depth, is lost.

Again, I assumed that, even if Georges was doomed never to learn the identity of his stalker, we, the audience would at least be clued in.  The angle of one tape made in Majid’s apartment implies that he or someone who had access to his apartment must have made it.  Yet he and his son convincingly deny having done so.  Haneke seems to want us to believe that they did not do it.  “Who then?” I found myself asking with some disbelief when the film ended.

The final scene is a trick of sorts, a long still shot that smacks of the stalker’s tapes Georges and Anne have been queasily screening on their home television throughout the film.  This shot is a still that frames the front of their son Pierrot’s school.  We wonder if the mysterious cinematographer has turned his attention to the adolescent boy.  But, after five minutes of children walking down the front steps, the credits roll.  It’s an ending that perfectly encapsulates Haneke’s command of his audience’s emotional state.  That command feels like control at times, as if Haneke is jerking us around, not giving us the gratification to which we are accustomed in Hollywood cinema.  It’s hard to imagine him apologizing for something so clearly a part of his intention in making the film.  The disruption is, in the end, something to savor.  An opportunity to reflect on the irreconcilable loose ends of life and the agency we do have; an agency rooted not in choosing whether or not the cause or reason for everything that befalls us is made clear to us, but rather in how we will respond to suffering, menace, danger.

One can almost hear the gears in Haneke’s mind turning, see him rubbing his hands with a twinge of diabolical glee as he envisions his audience squirming.  The film is so stylized, so clearly the product of the director’s singular, exacting vision that we’re left at the film’s end with the feeling of the medieval king whose enemy, having defeated him, now stands over him as he kneels prostrate and in chains and says, “I did this to you.”

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