Georges and Anne, a couple hounded by the relentless gaze of an unidentified video camera for the duration of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's new film Caché, live a routinized life of comfort and ease. Their home, stylishly decked out in sleek, soulless whites and greys, looks not unlike their offices, which look not unlike the swimming pool where their pubescent son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) receives instruction. This vaguely intellectual, haute-bourgeois pair, played by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, work in glam, French-movie professions (he's an upmarket television book reviewer, she's in publishing) which keep them at a cushy remove from the far less serene world outside the immediate circle of similarly burnished types who join them in their living room—its gleaming shelves meaningfully lined with videotapes—for pasta, red wine and Louis Malle-ish anecdotes about nothing very much.
In short, Georges and Anne are a smug pair, but there's also something smug about the camera that fastens itself in long, punishing takes on their slow disintegration after a series of videotapes start arriving mysteriously on their doorstep. I have my reservations about Haneke, who, like that other finger-wagging parson Godard, can be an awful scold when it comes to the middle classes he so palpably despises. And I wonder whether people who swoon over Haneke's work (Caché swept the European Film Awards recently and is gathering critical accolades by the pound) do so as a form of indirect self-flagellation, the price they pay for leading lives remarkably similar to Georges and Anne's. It's clear from this movie that the distinction intellectuals, in all their vanity, make between themselves and the bourgeoisie has effectively disappeared. For my money the term "bourgeois" has probably outstayed its welcome and should be replaced by the less shilly-shallying "heedless rich." Brainy or not, they all shop at Williams-Sonoma (the blue meanie in me can't help wondering where Haneke gets his own home-decorating tips) and they get their party talk from the Sunday supplements and, more critically, they're also appallingly detached from the rest of the world, whose underclass discontent seeps through, if at all, via the containing frames of the nightly news. Until, that is, it breaks through and socks privilege in the jaw. The eerily timely subject of Haneke's film is France's unwilling encounter with the disenfranchised minorities it has tried to sweep under the rug. As one who giggled through his widely admired, irredeemably silly The Piano Teacher, I wasn't prepared to be easily won over by Caché, but it turns out to be his most human and affecting movie to date.
Like all good Freudian-Marxists, Haneke believes that the repressed always returns to spit in the face of the repressor. You can buy this argument or not (an equally plausible, and more tragic, vision might be that the repressed—and by extension the oppressed—stay right where they are, in the back of our minds), but it's certainly true of Georges. He grows increasingly unhinged as the tapes that scrutinize his life—at first they focus on the façades of his home and his lifestyle, then increasingly zoom in on the secrets and lies that make his lifestyle possible—keep coming, along with cards bearing crude sketches of a child with blood spurting from his face. We're never told who the mystery photographer is: The filmmaker? His own submerged guilt, bursting blood-red into his bloodless existence? Someone with a grudge against him? What's clear is that Georges, who makes his living exploring ideas but is quite brainless when it comes to understanding himself, can only blame and threaten others when he himself is under siege. Thrown by recurring dreams of a life-changing childhood event, Georges scours the tapes for clues about who is watching him. Then, ignoring the objections of his increasingly distraught wife, he heads for the projects to track down Majid (Maurice Benichou), an Algerian man who had lived with Georges' wealthy family in the country for a while when both were children, during the height of Arab immigrant unrest. As dignified as Georges is hysterical, Majid calmly faces him down and denies that he's the mystery recorder. When Georges leaves, though, the camera lingers on Majid, his shoulders heaving with sobs. Later something terrible will happen between these two men, but even when Georges is thoroughly undone, someone will have to spell out to him that his relationship to Majid is symptomatic of the class and racial divides of a society not known for historical introspection.
Haneke's a bit of a speller-outer himself, and there's more than a touch of the puppeteer about him when it comes to character. By the end of the film, Georges, as objectified by Haneke as Majid is by him, is so pared down to his class consciousness, or lack thereof—a limitation of Brechtian filmmaking that makes you feel as pushed around by the filmmaker as his characters are—it would be hard to buy him as an individual were it not for Auteuil's strategically impassive performance. With him it's all in the eyes, which stare out of his crookedly handsome face with dull vacancy and the barest touch of panic, and as Georges crumples beautifully, we are brought to understand how devastating it is, after a lifetime of lying to oneself and others, to tell the truth, even if only for a moment.
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CACHÉ WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MICHAEL HANEKE; PRODUCED BY MARGARET MENEGOZ AND VEIT HEIDUSCHKA. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.