Saturday, September 28, 2013

Michael Haneke | Caché (Hidden)

who’s watching?
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Haneke (screenwriter and director) Caché (Hidden) / 2005

For much of the early part of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film Caché (Hidden) the viewers are shown an almost still front shot of the comfortable, book-lined home of television literary host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his book-publishing wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche). At first it almost seems like the director is attempting to test our endurance; but there is just enough movement and light, an occasional bicyclist, passing cars, and, eventually, human figures, that we realize this intense scrutiny of the building in the Laurent’s life is an attempt to create tension. And we soon are introduced into their about-to-be frightening world when a tape arrives on their doorstep—a tape very much like the one we have just observed on the movie screen. But as the couple reviews the video on their television set we suddenly watch anew as what at first appeared as an objective, nearly eventless portrait is transformed into a subjectively terrorizing enactment as they attempt to “read” what we have previously simply witnessed. Who has sent the tape, and why?   

    Soon after, a second and third tape arrives, these wrapped in paper with a crudely drawn cartoon-like pictures of a child with a long red tongue and a chicken with a bloody neck, these cassettes showing Georges’ childhood home, a street scene and the hall of a lower class apartment building. Again, the frightened couple can only wonder who is sending video tapes of aspects of their private life. Is it an attempt at blackmail, an act of voyeurism, or some coded message of events to come? The very presence of the tapes begins to take its toll on their usually placid lives. The police, who have no evidence of wrongdoing, refuse to be involved. And suddenly, Georges begins to have suspicions of the perpetrator that he will not share with his wife. Receiving the third tape, he attempts to hide it from his wife and the friends they are entertaining, but she announces to the group what has been happening, creating further divisions between them.

     Is Georges hiding something? What does he know about these cryptic messages that he cannot trust telling his loving wife?

As Georges travels back to his mother’s home, it becomes apparent that a great deal that has previously seemed peaceful is secretly disturbing, surviving in a kind of hidden life within Georges’ quiet and thoughtful outward personae. How can he not know, for example, that his mother’s health has severely deteriorated, and that she cannot now even leave her house? Has he been so long of touch with his apparently loving mother (Annie Girardot)? And why is Georges suddenly having nightmares about a young Algerian boy who his father and mother once had hoped to adopt after the boy’s parents had died? And what happened to that boy, Majid (Maurice Bénichou)?

      A street sign in one of the tapes leads Georges to a nearby town where he finds the hallway like the one in the video; knocking on number 47 he encounters a man about his age, at first unrecognizable, but soon, it is apparent, perceived as the Majid of Georges’ childhood memories. Although he accuses Majid of having sent the tapes, the now elderly man denies any knowledge of tapes or drawings, and, as Roger Ebert has proposed, we believe him, in part because of the gentle acting skills of Bénichou, who, in fact, seems to be at first pleased that Georges has even come to see him. The encounter, however, ends with Georges threatening the former friend.

     Another mailed tape shows that encounter, and the pained tears of Majid in its aftermath. How has that very interchange been filmed without Georges having been aware of it?

      When Georges and Anne’s son Pierrot goes missing for a night, his parents are convinced he has been kidnapped. With the police Georges returns to Majid’s door, where Majid and his son, (Walid Afkir) are arrested before being released. Pierrot returns home, unharmed, having spent the night with an unknown friend, now angry with his mother for what he has misinterpreted as a love affair with a mutual friend, Pierre, who has simply been physically reassuring Anne as she, in a restaurant, reported Georges’ silences.

     When Georges revisits Majid, the suffering childhood friend slits his throat before the bewildered visitor, and Georges rushes from the room without calling the police. Later, visiting Georges the son also denies—and again we believe him in his firm denial—involvement in filming or mailing messages.

     Little by little, accordingly, the director has seemed to build up the plot of a potential thriller which seems might be solved only through our perception or gradual discovery of who is sending the tapes? Yet when Georges, like a guilty boy, is finally forced to tell Anne why he had suspected Majid of the tapes, we discover a deeper, psychological drama centered upon guilt and the refusal to face it.    

     As a selfish six-year-old, not wishing to share his parent’s love with the young Algerian intruder, Georges has told lies about the boy, first concerning the boy throwing up blood, and later, insisting that, as Majid cuts the head of a hen with an axe at Georges’ behest, that he has been threatened. We see the scene as Majid is forced from the house, trying to escape before he taken away to an orphanage instead.

     Georges may rightfully explain his acts as that of an unknowing child; all children, he argues, are selfish beings. But we know that his behavior is part and parcel of something which the French culture has hidden as a whole: the shocking murders of Paris police, who brutally killed over 200 Algerian protestors (Majid’s parents included), throwing their bodies into the Seine.

     Surely Georges’ and Anne’s son, Pierrot, despite his angry reaction to Anne, has not been behind such complex actions, and surely he could not know of his father’s “hidden” past.

     Gradually it begins to dawn on us what we might have perceived all along: that the scenes the director has been showing us and the tapes the actors have been viewing are one and the same. In a truly postmodern twist, the director has sent his own actors the tapes, has used his own voyeuristic skills to trigger their guilt and its consequences into motion. Ebert hints at this same conclusion in his astute review of Caché and critic Anoine Doinel restates the theory in a highly convincing, if a bit flat-footed way, in the essay “(Un)hidden Camera: The ‘Real” Sender of the Tapes.”

The idea came to be much more directly, when it became apparent that Haneke was far less focused on revealing who had sent the tapes than he was on revealing the seemingly “forgotten” event in French culture and the effects that guilt might have created for all future generations. Ultimately, the film’s audience asking “who’s watching” has to answer with the obvious truth: we are—through the insistence of the director.

     As if to point up that question and test the audience once more, the film’s credits are played out across the entry of Pierrot’s school. Amidst the faces of dozens of student extras standing about and leaving the space, in the far left corner of a frontal shot—very much like that of the Laurents’ home early in the movie—we  glimpse Pierrot and Majid’s son standing together in an unheard conversation. What is he telling Pierrot, we can only ask? And will the implications of any revelation he makes to Pierrot (Georges’ son, but also, we recall, the stock sad-sack figure of French pantomime) effect his future? The truth revealed can save or destroy us, salve the mind or hit us over the head with its painfully blunt realities.

     Although, in the end, Caché, is a powerful film, particularly in its moral consciousness, it is also a highly manipulative one, which I believe weakens Haneke’s art by putting him in a morally elevated position in relation to the bourgeois liars he has just depicted. And as much as I admire Haneke’s filmmaking, I think this “hidden” or even “unhidden” (at one point we do glimpse the camera as a shadow across the wall, lit up by a passing car) trick of a tale, seriously diminishes Caché as a work of art.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2013

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