The plot of this film is so simple that it can be boiled down to one sentence on IMDB: “A married couple is terrorized by a series of surveillance videotapes left on their front porch.” But what the film does is hardly covered by that synopsis, because it takes off in so many unexpected ways from conventional suspense films that it turns into something totally different by the end of the film, and it can be a frustrating experience for many – but I love it.
First off, let me note that prior to seeing this in the theater, I had seen only one Michael Haneke film, the original Austrian version of Funny Games, and I hated it - HATED it. It made me angry in a way that very few films have. I suppose that means that it worked on some level, but it made me make sure that I didn’t watch any more of this director’s films – for a while anyway. But then in 2005, this one made the rounds of the art theaters and a friend invited me to it. “Oh no, that’s by the guy who made Funny Games, right? No way!” I said. “Trust me, I think you’ll like it.” She said. And she was right (thanks Yvette!). But I also saw some affinities with the earlier film that made me know it was by the same guy – a cold, almost clinical tone watching the gorgeously photographed proceedings, abrupt violence coming up unexpectedly, another theme of a family falling apart, and an ambiguous ending that hardly resolves anything, it just stops. And when I saw it, and reading about it since, I find that a lot of people don’t like it like I do. The comment from a woman in front of me in the theater then sticks with me “Did I miss something?” – and the answer is probably no, it’s just that the film didn’t do what most people expect it to do.
Daniel Auteuil is a well-liked and popular entertainer in France, having won a couple Cesars (their equivalent to the Oscars) and starred in several major French films. All the better to have him play the popular TV personality Georges Laurent, who, with his wife Anne (played brilliantly by the great Juliette Binoche), tries in vain to figure out who is sending the anonymous tapes, crude drawings, and postcards that at first seem vaguely menacing but begin to imply violence, possibly toward their son Pierre (Daniel Duval) – or possibly not. After a while the tapes and drawings begin to suggest things about Georges’ past so that he starts to suspect that he knows who has sent them – a man named Majid whose immigrant parents worked on his family’s farm. And that’s where we must diverge from discussion of the plot.
And it’s not because I would give anything away necessarily – as noted, Haneke has something else in mind with this film. He hasn’t wrapped up a mystery in a neat little bow that careful observers will solve by weeding through red herrings and catching hidden clues (the title, incidentally, translates as “Hidden” and it’s as apt a title as any I could imagine, echoing out to many levels of the film, which leaves much hidden). The film is more about playing with viewer’s expectations about what a thriller should be. In that it’s like Hitchcock, who knew exactly what effect he wanted to have on audiences in his films by what he chose to show and not show with tightly controlled camera work and framing. But Haneke doesn’t lead you by the nose in the same way, he drops you into a scenario and gives enough clues to make it menacing and then lets you sit there and experience the tension, knowing there’s a lurking menace out there but never making it plain. Eyes scan the many long shot frames for clues and come up empty because the tension is built around what you’ve seen in a thousand other suspense/mystery films and what “should” happen, not what the film is doing – but there are no “jump scares” to be had here, just a continual increase of pressure. It’s slowly digging deeper and deeper into Georges’ past, uncovering things he’d rather keep hidden, and by extension – perhaps, if I’m not stretching things too far – things France might rather keep hidden in its past treatment of its Algerian immigrant population.
The film implies much and asks a lot of questions without giving any easy answers. There are implications of subtle racism in the lead character early on that may or may not be relevant. There are plot points that could be taken one way or another – like Kurosawa’s Rashomon this is an exploration of several truths, each contradicting the other and making none of them ultimately feasible. Roger Ebert, in his review, mentions a “smoking gun” at one point in the film that he feels solves the riddle, but I beg to differ. The film instead puts viewers out of their comfort zones, out of their expectations, and into a shaky territory where terrible things happen in beautiful settings and cinematography, where motivations aren’t clear and there are no easy answers. Sometimes, he pushes people too far – Funny Games pushed my buttons hard when I saw in 1998 and the 2007 U.S. remake he did didn’t fare any better with me, though at least I knew what to expect. But generally speaking Haneke is asking the right kinds of questions and pushing things in the right direction. And Caché proved to only be the first evidence I saw of how good he could be – the other non-Funny Games films I’ve seen have been great as well, and more recently he’s won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his two most recent films: The White Ribbon and the unironically-titled Amour. But with Caché, you’ll know if he’s for you or not. And I understand if he’s not for you – after all, that’s how I started off with him.
- Patrick Brown