Directed and written by Michael Haneke
With Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Benichou, Annie Girardout, and Lester Makedonsky
Cache, the best new fiction feature I saw last year, opens with what seems like a standard establishing shot: a stationary view of the front of an upscale home. It lasts for three minutes, with very little movement in the frame--but then the footage is abruptly rewound and replayed. A cutaway reveals a nervous middle-class couple watching this scene on video. It's their house on the screen--the tape was left anonymously on their doorstep and it's impossible to regard it as anything other than threatening. The tapes keep coming, documenting the family's daily life, and the rest of the film chronicles the desperate search for the originator. But as this high-concept drama progresses it involves viewers in a more critical conflict, confronting and challenging not only our relationship to the characters' reality, but the reality of our own lives.
The mysterious tapes threaten the security of Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a literary talk show; his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), a literary editor; and their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But as Georges investigates the source of the tapes he expends as much effort hiding his own dark history from his family--namely his childhood manipulation and abuse of Majid (Maurice Benichou), an Algerian orphan taken in by his parents. Georges suspects that the grown-up Majid is somehow involved, but the more he confronts and threatens the man the more his inner turmoil over past crimes surfaces, gradually undermining his mission, his ability to function as a husband and father, and the audience's sympathy for him.
More than one critic has noted how Georges' contempt for and fear of Majid, as well as his refusal to face his own abusive past, reflects the real-life national crisis that exploded in the suburbs of France last November, which stemmed in part from widespread ignorance and disregard of those suffering from economic and racial discrimination. Georges' ignorance isn't due to a lack of knowledge or understanding; it's the result of selective memory. Unable to acknowledge his past as an abuser, he sees himself as an undeserving victim. Cache puts its audience in a similar position: amid an abundance of information we're forced to choose what to focus on, constructing our own version of the film's truth.
In one scene Georges, frustrated and distracted after a fruitless meeting with the police, is nearly blindsided by an African biker. As the two threaten to come to blows, Anne tries to defuse the situation by saying to the biker, "You weren't looking and we weren't looking, OK?" It's a seemingly well-intended peace offering, but Anne offers it in the hopes that the two parties will disengage and carry on their business of not looking. The problem isn't just a matter of not seeing, but of not wanting to see.
The central narrative question of who is videotaping Georges--and moreover, how the taping is going unnoticed--is never fully answered. One particular tape of Georges and Majid, shot inside Majid's apartment without any explanation as to how it was done, threatens to exhaust the viewer's suspension of disbelief. Such exhaustion found a voice in at least one critic, Salon's Charles Taylor: "Ask anyone extolling the movie, 'Who sent the videotapes?' and they brush you off as if you were being hopelessly conventional. Maybe [director Michael] Haneke knows that providing the answer to who sent the tapes, i.e., the collective guilt of France, would expose the movie as the trite little thesis exercise it is."
But demanding a straight answer is as reductive as ascribing the film's purpose to any single notion when it has so much more to offer. Auteuil and Binoche convey an unstable emotional core of quiet middle-class security that threatens to crack at any moment. The film's meticulous set design manages to be both banal and expressive: a wall of neatly arranged books and videos in Georges' home illustrates his possessive bourgeois relationship to knowledge. His son's room, featuring vibrant posters of Eminem and soccer players and a video-game steering wheel attached to his computer, suggests a portal into a wholly different personal reality, a world to which his parents seem largely oblivious. These interiors are shown in wide shots that flatten the images--everything is seen at once, yet what is actually being shown is left for the audience to discern. Haneke is also capable of breathtakingly stylized shots, such as one with Georges standing in a crowded elevator with Majid's son--Georges avoids the son's gaze, but their reflections in the mirrored walls create remarkable visual tension, fragments of space where individuals stand in defensive isolation.
At the risk of validating Taylor's demand for simple answers, it should be mentioned that the film's final scene, a four-minute shot of a school entrance, contains a highly suggestive clue as to the source of the videotapes, though to find it requires concentrated looking--which may be the point. You have to look even if you're never sure what you're looking for. And even if you catch the clue--a small interaction between two characters--there's still the matter of how to interpret it. Much of this depends on how one regards Georges, as well as every other character in the movie, the part that each plays in this society, and how this society mirrors our own. In other words, Cache is about how the way we look at people--a spouse, a child, a homeless person, a security guard--reflects our own humanity, exactly the sort of thing the best works of cinematic art aspire to reveal.