Michael Haneke’s sharp and timely thriller explores how the shadows of a man’s past can come back to haunt him with a vengeance.
By Betsy Sherman
If ever an unsettling allegory came along at the right moment, it’s Michael Haneke’s “Caché” (Hidden). With a glance back to Europe’s colonial past, and a finger pointed at the colonizers’ inadequate efforts to deal honorably with immigrants from the former colonies and their children, “Caché” personalizes issues brought up during the recent riots in France. It does so with a story about a white Parisian couple, and the legacy of a secret betrayal heretofore buried in the husband’s past.
“Caché” owes much of its impact to the lead performance by Daniel Auteuil, who succeeds in making his character believably human while also shouldering the burden of collective guilt.
Haneke, an Austrian, combined a cerebral approach to filmmaking with ultraviolent content in the 1997 “Funny Games.” For “Caché,” he uses the thriller genre — with a couple of eruptions of genuinely shocking bloodletting — in order to map the cracks within one man’s psyche (a la Roman Polanski), and also to make his sociological point that conditions are unlikely to change without a wrenching upheaval.
“Caché” shares its initial premise with David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” A videotape, sender unknown, is placed at the doorstep of a middle-class couple. It’s a surveillance-type view of their living space, all the more creepy because of the matter-of-factness of its voyeurism. In the case of Georges (Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), the shot is of their townhouse doorfront, which stands out from those of their neighbors because of two round little trees that provide a sort of green maternal bosom.
This static view, accompanied by ambient sound of cars and birds, opens the film; it’s only after several minutes that we find out we’re watching it on Georges and Anne’s television, along with them. Subsequently, whenever Haneke cuts to a scene of the street, he keeps us guessing whether we’re sharing the point of view of stalker, victim, or all-knowing storyteller.
As the standard thriller plot-points are checked off — the occurrence of other real or perceived threats, the question of when to call the police — we learn about our principals, Georges, Anne, and their 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). While Georges seems affable, Anne seems cold and peevish. The television screen is surround by bookcases, which line each wall of the living and dining room space. Georges is host of a literary round-table show on public television, and Anne works for a publisher. Pierrot, a competitive swimmer, is moody, but not unusually so.
A tape arrives that proves the sender is more than a simple prankster; it shows Georges’ childhood home in the countryside, and it’s wrapped in a child-like drawing of a boy vomiting blood. The drawing, in particular, triggers disturbing dreams about an incident in Georges’ childhood. These flashbacks help us penetrate his regular-guy facade, and to have some empathy for Anne, who must absorb quite a bit of tension in order to live with him.
A monumental puzzle-piece in “Caché” is an incident in 1961 that was hushed up, even in France, until thirty years after the fact. At a certain point during the Algerian war for independence from France, a curfew was imposed on ethnic Algerians living in Paris. On October 17, 1961, tens of thousands of Algerians held a peaceful demonstration in Paris to protest the curfew. This gathering was met by aggressive force on the part of the French police. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, died in what has since been called a massacre. Their bodies were dumped into the Seine.
Georges is forced to look back from an adult perspective on a consequence of that massacre. An Algerian couple who worked on his parents’ estate traveled to Paris for the demonstration and never returned. Their son, Majid, was sent away to an orphanage and forgotten.
Haneke stages a series of confrontations between the two middle-aged men who share uncomfortable memories (Majid’s apartment is in one of those bleak suburban housing projects in which Arabs and Africans have been ghettoized). Majid (Maurice Benichou) greets Georges with the familiar “tu” form; Georges, in a state of high anxiety, tries to extend the distance between them by using the formal “vous.” In spite of what happened when they were boys, Majid denies seeking, or even wanting, revenge. Over the course of the film the question will become, just who is terrorizing whom?
Auteuil, arguably the best actor working in films over the past fifteen years, is perfectly capable of playing a character who wears his heart on his sleeve, but he’s much more fun when playing withholders like Georges. A tic in the jaw, a contraction of the shoulders, a suggestion of terror behind the eyes — these tell us as much about Georges as do his lies to Anne, or his falsely upbeat words while chatting with his ailing mother (French cinema icon Annie Girardot). Haneke provides sufficient outward cues, such as the fortress-like stacks of books (civilization) that surround the family, which are echoed in the painted backdrop of Georges’ TV show.
Of course, Haneke is himself a European intellectual, mocking other European intellectuals for arguing about Rimbaud while Rome burns (or their cars burn). A scene in which Georges explodes in anger at a black bicyclist, while it recalls the interracial fight that launched the action in Haneke’s “Code Inconnu,” is forced and obvious here.
However, there’s real poetry in “Caché’s” final passages, which include a heartbreaking flashback in which the powerful triumph against the utterly powerless. As in the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s suggested that unexplainable forces are at work alongside those that can be documented. Georges, bunkered in his bedroom and stripped bare in more than one sense, is washed in an inky blue darkness. He has closed the curtains, but a sliver of light peeks through. The light persists, refusing to be excluded from view.