Saturday, March 8, 2008

Caché: The murderers are among us

Making good on one of the enigmatic triggers that gradually evaporated in the mirror-miasma of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke’s Caché begins with a VHS tape left on a doorstep, a little act of psychological terrorism perfectly blurring the innocuous and the sinister. The tape reveals only hours of the same fixed shot of the exterior of the recipients’ Parisian home. They come and go, unknowing while nothing happens, their walls remaining uncompromised—at least, physically.

Yet the tape-maker has more than succeeded in his act of invasion: the camera may never move into the house but the tape does (and more soon follow), along with some crude cryptic drawings, penetrating not only personal boundaries but psychic ones buried in the troubled memories of Georges (Daniel Auteuil). Like the tape-maker, Georges prefers to keep his thoughts and motivations hidden, even from his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche, superb) and pre-teen son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). And the tape becomes a catalyst for mistrust, which spreads like a contagion through the family.

In his chillingly clean, understated exploitation of the thriller genre, Haneke manipulates our frames of perception from the film’s opening moment, offering us suspense but no privileged information, no sudden close-ups constructed to clarify intent, no transitions that might guide us toward an easier contextualizing of what we’re watching, whether it be surveillance, dramatic action, memory or fragment of a dream. Everything in
Caché is presented in the same directorial deadpan, which functions all the better toward implicating us in the very deep murk lying just outside the film’s periphery.

By accident or design, Georges is being led back 40 years to unpleasant childhood experiences shared with Majid (Maurice Bénichou), the son of an Algerian couple once briefly employed by Georges’s family. Georges’s guilt is, in fact, the true engine of the story, and Auteuil’s heavily guarded panic inspires both our identification and our dread. This is a remarkable performance that draws no attention to itself—indeed, rather than play for the camera, Auteuil’s Georges becomes so fearful of hidden viewers as to be afflicted with pretend calm that he can’t let go of no matter where he is.

But where we in the audience are being led as witnesses of Georges’s fruitless search for resolution is toward equally confrontational if unspoken questions of long-term responsibility that reach far beyond a single character’s psychological closets and into the collective consciousness: the failures of the integrationist model of French citizenship, France’s ghastly mistreatment of Algerians, and, broadening the historical scope, global paranoia about terror and Islam. For all the ambiguity, perhaps the one certainty we share with Georges is the knowledge that our sense of home comes at a terrible cost to others.

The evocation of home is as questionable on a literal level as it is on the figurative: the neatly arranged walls of books that envelope Georges and Anne’s place, while signifying educated, rationalist, middle-class comfort, are eerily echoed by the representational walls of fake books that envelope the set of the literary chat show Georges hosts. The tension between reality and theatre is left suspended in
Caché; there is a deliberate lack of release (though you’re advised to sit through the closing credits if you want every chance at closure). This tension then hovers disconcertingly in our consciousness as we leave the theatre and try to make sense of the film, its final triumph being the way it finally denies a solid form to its bogeyman, knowing full well that he’s lurking inside the formless fluids of our minds.

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