By Thomas Garvey
Michael Haneke may be the only living director who really matters, but you might not guess that from “Cache” (“Hidden”), the new film that has finally brought the brilliant Austrian auteur some serious media attention. It’s far easier, actually, to guess from “Cache” why he’s suddenly a press darling: the film treats the problem of hidden French racism – and it’s always more fun to contemplate the racism of other nations (particularly those snotty French) than to ponder that of your own. (If you doubt me, consider the strange fact that we have a Holocaust Museum on the Washington Mall, but not a Slavery Museum. Or better yet, review the Alito hearings.
But don’t get me wrong – “Cache,” like every Haneke film I’ve ever seen, is fascinating, and steadily absorbing, and easily one of the best movies of the year; and it wraps with yet another of Haneke’s brilliant formal twists. The film couldn’t be more timely – as you probably know by now, it concerns a bourgeois family in Paris tormented by silent surveillance by some unknown agent, who may or may not be the Algerian victim of a racial incident in the family’s past. But if you’re expecting an inflamed, outraged response to the recent riots in France, forget about it. As always, Haneke rejects any and all thrilling cinematic effects (a la Spielberg, in the morally obvious “Munich”), and instead austerely, but steadily, bores into your psyche. And by now it simply goes without saying that this director operates at an intriguing, and utterly original, intersection of psychology, politics, and formal artistic investigation. In short, from anyone else, “Cache” would be a revelation. And yet the movie (slightly) let me down; it somehow lacks the savage edge of “Time of the Wolf,” “The Pianist,” “Code Unknown,” or the notoriously horrific “Funny Games”; I suppose I had hoped that somehow Haneke’s “breakthrough,” as it were, would be an artistic breakthrough, too.
Oh, well! I’ll have to just content myself with a minor, if superb, example of his cool, calm brilliance. And perhaps my disappointment with the film is simply displaced disappointment with the American critical establishment, anyway, and the timing of their “discovery” of Haneke. The Paulettes and fanboys who have taken over film criticism have had no idea what to make of this particular auteur, a filmmaker who actually denies the audience superficial pleasure. (Eeek! There goes Auntie Pauline’s whole theory!) And even though I’m happy to see the crowds at “Cache,” it’s simply shocking that Haneke is still far from an (intellectual) household word, considering that he made his first full-length film seventeen years ago, and even “Funny Games” dates from 1997. Without the patronage of Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche, in fact, his last four films would probably never have been made, and Haneke would be even more obscure than he is now. (Actors, not critics, are keeping what’s left of the cinema alive.) Imagine Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” not being known in the U.S. until the late sixties and you approximate the critical treatment of Haneke.
But enough about American film criticism, and a bit more about Haneke. What makes this dour Austrian leftist, this strange cross between Kubrick and Godard, the best director to emerge since Kieslowski, and probably the only director working today worthy of the pantheon that includes Kurosawa and Bergman?
Of course any such question has to be answered indirectly, as the force of any movie is tied to its sense of occasion, which no analysis can really do justice. But the first hint that Haneke is one of the greats is his quiet radicalism. His work has something in common with the spirit of the Dogme 95 group (all of whom have basically abandoned its tenets), except that Haneke, you get the impression, understood that “manifesto” against cinematic gimmickry was itself something of a gimmick, too. Thus he doesn’t deny himself standard commercial levels of lighting, sound and photography, but at the same time, doesn’t use them to distract us from his themes. There are, as a result, few striking shots in Haneke, and little, it’s true, of the expressionism and poetry of cinema, either.
But you get the sense that Haneke’s austerity is largely a response to the state of the form: sensation is killing cinema, and he and we both know it. At the same time, the minimal intrusion of technique allows him to expand the “space” of his thematic concerns exponentially. “Cache,” for example, touches on issues of race, political engagement, the unconscious, and moral responsibility, as well as matters utterly metaphysical. Its title alone opens out into a puzzlebox of meaning – does it refer to the hidden past revealed in the plot, or to the ‘hidden” racism of modern French society, or to the “hidden” camera that is the plot’s MacGuffin? Or does it refer, even more deeply, to the “hidden” intent of the film’s undetermined villain, or even to some “hidden” conscience that permeates history? As you can see, Haneke manages in his two hours to get at thematic depths that would have impressed Beckett. And “Cache” is nothing next to “The Pianist,” which between its frigid bouts of S&M tosses off a critique of Adorno and a harrowing interpretation of Schubert’s “Winterreise”.
Which brings me to another shocker about Haneke: he’s actually attuned to the other fine arts; he’s hardly so naïve as to imagine cinema as some über-art form that either synthesizes or squashes literature, drama, and music. Instead, his cinema is devised as a companion to civilization, rather than its apotheosis – this may be another reason why he bugs so many movie critics, and why his films have something of the dynamic of live theatre. We sense our own presence as audience at Haneke movies, as if we were watching Brecht or Shakespeare; we’re not in the private world of cable TV and porn, much less the “dream state” of Hitchcock or Fellini. We’re wide awake, almost painfully so – in fact, in “Funny Games”, we eventually realize it’s our own desire for thrills that’s driving the sadism of the plot, and we watch the rest of the movie with a deepening sense of guilt.
Haneke’s attitude toward his audience, as you may be able to guess from that example, is a magisterial one – he expects something from us other than our admiration of his obvious skill (in fact, he doesn’t care much if he admire him, much less love him). This alone makes him unique among working directors, and I’d even go so far as to suggest that Haneke is subtly re-configuring the film/audience paradigm. More than one Haneke film operates as a kind of conceptual trap on its viewers – although the director sets up the snare so quietly that it often doesn’t register until after the credits have rolled (at which point, the surprise is on us).
“Cache” offers a particularly subtle sample of this signature. The film does not so much “end” as drift apart into its ramifications (it’s hardly a “thriller” – rather more of a “thinker,” I’d say). The final shot, however, conceals a quiet sting. Haneke confronts us with a wide shot of children chattering on the steps outside a school. The image is complex, and without apparent focus, but gradually we pick out Pierrot, the son of the family “terrorized” in the movie, as he chats with the son of Majid – the Algerian man we now suspect is the movie’s “terrorist.” The shot is completely inconclusive; the encounter only lasts a moment, and Pierrot appears unfazed by it. Yet we begin to construe more sinister meanings immediately – is Majid’s son plotting some new attack on Pierrot and his family? The shot, however, has a “hidden” meaning (or yes, “cache”) – one that only occurred to me after I had left the theater. How, exactly, do we pick Pierrot and Majid’s son out of that chattering flock of kids? It’s with a slight shock that I realized it was because Majid’s son was black – the only black person in the image, in fact. Unconsciously I had picked him out of the crowd of whites, and then followed him as he found Pierrot; and then, just like Pierrot’s parents, I had begun to imagine the worst.
This, I’d argue, is just about the subtlest evocation of unconscious racism ever captured on film – all the more original, in fact, because it implicates the audience directly, like so many of Haneke’s best gambits. Needless to say, few directors have managed to make their audience the proof positive of their theme, much less erase any distance between audience and subject. And yet Haneke lets the sequence play out without rancor, or any sense of insistence; it serves as demonstration, not accusation, which one could argue is the essence of artistic (rather than political) endeavor. Does this make “Cache” (like “The Pianist” and “Funny Games” before it) the best film of its year? It would be hard to argue no.