Shock the bourgeois. That rallying cry of early 20th Century European art and art cinema — apres Baudelaire — becomes less effective as each passing year pulls us further from the canonized abrasions of modernity and deeper into the postmodern neutralization of visceral, disarming violence. In retrospect, Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke‘s early films, culminating in 1997’s nihilistic “Funny Games,” fall into this trap, brilliantly composed and confrontational as they are. As apocalyptic visions of the bourgeois nuclear family, “The Seventh Continent” and “Funny Games” remain nearly unparalleled in their unrelenting brutality.
The major flaw was always Haneke’s inability to sustain shock beyond the abstracted confines of his protagonists; filmmaker and art-house audience played a zero sum game, equal parts sadomasochistic guilt trip and wish fulfillment. Starting from “Code Unknown” in 2000, however, Haneke’s work has progressed by leaps and bounds. Excepting “The Piano Teacher,” he has faced the West’s millennial crises by successfully incorporating concrete social and political commentary into his esoteric framework — and still without forsaking the visual innovation or incisive studies of human behavior so vital to his approach. The uncannily prescient “Cache” now represents the high watermark of Haneke’s current phase.
“Cache” has the director once again disrupting bourgeois decency to observe the traumatic dissolution of a tenuous social order. Literary roundtable television host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his book editor wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), begin receiving anonymous surveillance-style videotapes of their apartment’s facade; their comings and goings are duly captured amidst hours of footage. The tapes are complemented by black-and-white sketches–a puking child, a butchered rooster–punctuated with smears of blood red crayon. It becomes more personal: The assailant’s camera soon finds the estate where Georges grew up and the low-rent apartment of a long forgotten acquaintance. In finding out who’s sending the tapes and why, Georges must face up to a suppressed episode from his childhood, an episode related to France’s nasty history of colonialism and racism. But catastrophically, Georges never does. His deceptions tear apart the family unit, none of whose members are entirely innocent of subterfuge.
Even accounting for the similarly topical “Code Unknown,” Haneke has never been more explicitly political. Watching “Cache,” it’s impossible not to think of the racially charged riots that recently swept through France — one of the film’s boldest shots directly connects Georges’s blind dehumanization of the other with the clash between Western and Islamic civilizations, as a television in the background blasts Middle East news reports while the Laurents fret over the possible disappearance of teenage son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). What makes “Cache” so devastatingly critical — and not merely liberal hand wringing — is how it details passive-aggressive oppression and its manifestation as a slow-building, unresolved societal tension. Paralleling his subject, Haneke has shifted his aesthetic balance so that (excepting one moment of gasp-inducing violence) the last refuge of bourgeois catharsis — shock — doesn’t outweigh thorough examination.
On another level, “Cache”–like “Benny’s Video” and “Code Unknown” — works as visual metaphor (or meta- for), confronting viewers with their role as interpreters of images. The film’s opening feigns a routine establishing shot only to align Georges and Anne’s subjectivity with the viewer’s in what turns out to be a POV. This reversal initiates “Cache”‘s project of heightened awareness. Haneke gradually asks that we come to vague and often incomplete images with a receptiveness that Georges and Anne lack in their reaction to the tapes–belligerence, arising from fear, allows them to avoid self-examination. Georges’s behavior–the distrustful secretiveness and petty, pathological lies he offers his wife; his stubborn refusal to be plagued by a “bad conscience” — embodies the willful ignorance and disavowal so ingrained by society as to appear natural.
But “Cache” doesn’t settle for simple moral instruction. Rather, Haneke poses direct challenges to spectatorial habits, habits that extend to political consciousness. As the film progresses, “normal” establishing shots, as well as dream and memory sequences, begin to resemble the anonymous surveillance footage’s static long shots, so threatening precisely for de-emphasizing human intervention. Haneke plays with film grammar here not only to subvert the epistemological certitude of “invisible” narrative cinema (a project echoed in the subversion of thriller genre conventions), but also to visually reinforce “Cache”‘s theme of revelation and concealment. By the much talked-about final shot, we’re asked to fill in visual and narrative information on our own–receptiveness as consciousness. Unlike Georges, a controller of media who uses his power to ruse, what Haneke wants above all–to quote that very different political filmmaker, D.W. Griffith — is to “make you see.”
By Nick Pinkerton
A formidable name in the world of internationally co-produced Euro-art-house imports, Michael Haneke makes staid, articulately-shot thrillers which perform deft metaphorical double-duty as commentaries on big-game topics. This outing: the collective repressed guilt of the Western world for its transgressions towards that problematic region we call the Middle East, re-cast as a middle-aged intellectual celebrity’s (Daniel Auteuil) grapple with a dredged up memory of a childhood wrong. The personal is, very explicitly, political as domestic deceit between Auteuil and wife Juliette Binoche plays out in front of a formidable home entertainment center where the apocalyptic news of the world is on-screen.
The two-tiers in “Cache”‘s conflation of private and international policy are pretty plain: Auteuil’s unrepentant boyhood betrayal of an adopted Algerian brother coincides with a historically brushed-by massacre of FLN on French soil; the free-floating anxiety that engulfs Auteuil upon discovering that his family is being silently surveyed is akin to that of the West now squirming in the cross-hairs, reaping the results of a couple-odd centuries of arrogance. And the movie, at best, establishes the perfect tone of ambient dread; of lashing out at an ambiguous enemy; of mishandled cross-class dealings with an inscrutable “other” (literally erupting in the most jarring moment of screen violence in recent memory).
“Cache”‘s been justifiably congratulated for reading the proverbial writing on the wall, virtually guaranteeing itself movie-of-the moment status while Paris (and Australia, and God knows where next…) are burning; it’s that sense of now-ness which almost vibrates life into the film’s dead-air dialogues and vacuum-packed characterizations. Haneke’s formula of slow-burn tedium spiked with abrupt shocks strikes me as the game of a hack tricked-up in auteur’s clothes–the horse shooting in “Time of the Wolf” made this critic recall Klaus Kinski‘s contemptuous assessment of Werner Herzog‘s art in the actor’s autobiography: just torture an animal whenever the movie starts to drag. But it’s difficult to deny that he’s on to something in “Cache”– and there’s just enough ambiguity as to what that thing is to keep me from setting the movie aside, secure that I “got” it.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor. He works for IDP.]
By Jeannette Catsoulis
All of Michael Haneke’s films are, in one way or another, about fear — specifically, class fear. The facades of culture and comfort erected by his upper-middle-class characters — the weekend cottages, the wall-to-wall books — are feeble barriers against political rot, economic desperation, and the fragility of white power. In “Cache”, this instability is more explicit: Haneke wants us to know that we cannot hide from the consequences of racial neglect, and the entire film is constructed like a warning against self-delusion. Georges may be professionally at ease with the cameras on his talk show, but the secret camera that unhinges him–watching without permission, without barriers, is a violation. It reminds him that he is, finally, unprotected.
In “Cache”, the Laurents’ hidden watcher is the judge of us all, and just as likely to be a manifestation of Georges’s own conscience as a figure from the past with closure on his mind. What seems to matter to Haneke is not the punishment of the guilty but simply acknowledging that the comforts of our lives are built on the crimes of the past. Whether threatened on subways, in the street, or in their own homes, his characters are constantly reminded of the societal tipping point: the center, like gated communities, cannot hold forever.
[Jeannette Catsoulis is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and is a regular film critic for the New York Times. ]