Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Caché

The use of the term "Hidden" - the English translation of the original French-language title Caché - is incredibly pertinent. Throughout the film, director Michael Haneke suggests the idea of something hidden, not only within the lives of these characters, but within the very fabric of the film itself. To establish and express this idea more concisely, he forces the audience to look deeply into the film from the very first frame; establishing the visual language of the picture and the recognisable ideas of voyeurism and observation that will be further developed throughout. Here, one could even argue that the actual presentation of the film goes beyond even that; offering the central point of characters viewing other characters - while simultaneously being viewed by the audience of the film itself - as a reflexive rhetoric between the filmmaker and his audience; wherein the two become co-conspirators, observing the fate of these selected characters, but also in control of it.

Haneke extends on this notion with a more provocative theme; introducing the subtle revelation that these characters aren't simply watching other characters, but are more importantly, watching other characters suffer. With this, we can choose to see the film as an even greater commentary on the nature of cinema in the 21st century, again, taking us back to the crux of the augment presented in the director's most infamous film, the controversial satire Funny Games (1997). As with that particular film, the fourth-wall between the audience and the protagonists is here continually broken; often in a way that deliberately diminishes the natural drama, tension or suspense that we might expect to find in a work broadly categorised (if not marketed) as a conventional thriller. However, like any thriller, there is a mystery: the characters are aware of the fact that someone is watching them, but they don't know who. We fill in the blanks and recognise the connection as we view these characters being forced to view themselves on the crudely-shot video cassettes that arrive on their doorstep.


Caché directed by Michael Haneke, 2005:

On the one hand this thematic set-up can be seen as an observation on the natural voyeurism of the cinema and the intrusion that an audience makes on the lives of its characters as we actively engage in their downfall. However, there is a lot more to the film than this simple, obvious reading of its themes might suggest; with the usual, sociological or political aspects, often present in Haneke's work, being represented by an incredibly intelligent cinematic presentation of the workings of collective-guilt (and in particular, how the sins of the fathers' are often visited upon their children; or if not, are at least caught up in the continual cycle that repeats itself over time) It's hard for a writer of limited vocabulary such as myself to really get to grips with this particular aspect of the film without delving too far into the plot (and by extension - those all-important background revelations), which develops slowly; often being discovered or interpreted by the audience alongside the characters, to again, further that blurring of the line that separates the viewer from the viewed. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that certain aspects here do warrant closer inspection; especially the references to the Paris massacre of 1961, which plays an important role in the development of the back-story and one of the strongest (albeit, implied) references to that aforementioned spectre of guilt.

The opening frame of the film; originally introduced as a conventional movie frame - an establishing master-shot that allows enough room for the opening block of credits - is deconstructed by the dialog of the central characters, who question what it is that we're supposed to be seeing. At this point, the character physically rewinds the image, like Paul (Arno Frisch) in Haneke's original version of Funny Games, forcing us to question the line between actuality and recording.


Caché directed by Michael Haneke, 2005:

Though considered a difficult work by some critics, no doubt as a reaction to the often extremely clinical nature of Haneke's direction, which, as in many of his films, creates an air of lifeless, cold examination, the style and the approach is nonetheless integral to the oddly conflicting world of the film, as these characters struggle through their issues in these grey, minimal-little worlds, devoid of colour or compassion. This kind of presentation goes as far back as the director's very first theatrical feature, The Seventh Continent (Der Siebente Kontinent, 1989), and can be see right the way through to his more recent projects, like the critically acclaimed Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages, 2000) or the award-winning The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001).

This particular style works well with Caché (2005), in which we return to certain ideas established in The Seventh Continent, in particular the depiction of a comfortable, seemingly normal middle-class family's slow deterioration into depression, desperation and worse. However, in that particular film, the sense of deterioration came from within; as the nature of society in the late twentieth-century (specifically the end of the turbulent 1980s) creates a cold and dehumanising vacuum that sucks the life from even the most average of everyday family units.


The Seventh Continent directed by Michael Haneke, 1989:


Caché directed by Michael Haneke, 2005:

In contrast however, the devastation in Caché comes from the outside in; it is here where the central core of the drama is established. Through the use of his mise-en-scene and the reliance on long-takes captured from a single static camera, Haneke is able to challenge his audience in their powers of observation; making light of the fact that we (as an audience) often look only for the obvious in situations; so much so in fact that we sometimes end up failing to grasp the various other pitfalls that await us. In keeping with this idea, Hanake offers us a story in which the ultimate answer could very well be the most simplistic. Indeed, so simplistic that the majority of audiences might even discount it within the first fifteen minutes for being far too obvious for such a seemingly sophisticated thriller. However, this (seemingly) is the point. We, much like the characters within the film - television presenter Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his career-minded wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) - are given the chance to look at something. On the surface, a simple videotape; but it is in looking at this tape and the images depicted therein that triggers the events that will escalate throughout the film until that vague and enigmatic final.

By looking at the tape, they're being asked to look, not only within themselves, but within one another. What do they see? Do they - like the audience - look only for the obvious, or do they instead look for a deeper meaning? And does looking deeper actually offer them anything that the initial viewing wouldn't have already suggested? As the characters' view the tape, we the audience view the film. The person who sent us the film, much like the character(s) who sent the tape, is asking us to look for something of significance. Like the characters, we see the most obvious presentation - a gated three-story-home in an affluent Parisian suburb - but what do we see beyond that? What does this single image tell us about these characters? As the central protagonists begin to look into themselves and deeply into one another, we, the audience do the same; putting the characters under the microscope and drawing our own conclusions and opinions that may be right or may be wrong, but nonetheless, offer us clues to the greater mystery. At the same time the film is working as a critique on the broader notions of cinema and of the relationship between the film, the viewer and the filmmaker himself.

As the video cassettes continue to pile up - with each one offering yet another piece of a puzzle that will eventually take us forty-four years into the past, across race and generations - the relationships between these characters begin to strain and fragment. Here, we realise that the actions of the past - once hidden, never spoken - have tarnished the very fabric of this family and the comfortable bourgeois existence that they had previously shared together.

All of this is implied beautifully by the subtly of Haneke's direction and his skilful handling of his actors; with the filmmaker managing to create this authentic feeling of fashionable, upper-middle class Parisian domesticity with perhaps the two biggest stars in contemporary French cinema: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. Both are excellent in their respective roles of the husband and wife falling apart as their hermetically sealed existence is threatened by the accusing eyes of an outside force that only one of them can comprehend (a factor within the storyline that brings us to the real - for lack of a better word - moral at the root of this dilemma).


Caché directed by Michael Haneke, 2005:

The question that hangs heavy over the narrative is obviously "who sent the tapes?" There are several possibilities to explore here, including the most obvious; the one that both we and Georges immediately arrive at. NOTE: The following paragraph will contain MAJOR SPOILERS so as to better explore the potential suspects.

The most obvious figure to come under close-scrutiny is Majid (Maurice Bénichou); the now middle-aged Algerian denied a loving home and a proper education by Georges' childhood hoax. Majid denies such accusations and eventually becomes something of a tragic figure – the real victim at the heart of this twisted plot. As the story unfolds further, we speculate as to the involvement of Majid's son (Walid Afkir), who later points the finger at Georges, explicitly implicating him in the torturous ruin of his father's life. However, this character will also deny any involvement in the tapes, despite the fact that one video is clearly shot from the vantage point of his father's cramped kitchen. In a twist of sorts, the final shot of the film shows Majid's son meeting with Georges own teenage son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), where they exchange unheard words in a long shot that obscures the possible exchange of information (both between the filmmaker and the viewer) to the point of almost subliminal suggestion. One of the most interesting online interpretations that I've read suggests that it is in fact George himself who sent the tapes, suffering a psychotic break that has forced him to confront the demons of his past head-on; something that the character would never and could never have been able to commit-to if still in a correct state of mind.

Perfectly played by Auteuil, Georges is a continually enigmatic figure; able to move back and forth from the sympathetic victim to the contemptuous villain, as the balance of power shifts like the paused image of one of those illicit video cassettes. However, is he a poor sap on the wrong end of a malicious prank - something that he could no-longer be held responsible for given his age at the time of the initial event - or is he a man simply unable to accept responsibility for his actions? (Exemplified in a number of scenes, notably his conversations with the TV producer and in the brief - but potentially violent - altercation with the cyclist early in the film)

These interpretations can be scrutinised or passed over, with either one being plausible enough in regards to the eventual outcome. Nevertheless, these single elements, used to weave together the tapestry, are simply components that make up the greater image. Like the pointillist dots of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1884, it is simply a way of accumulating enough visual information until we can step back and appreciate the complete picture.


Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1884:


Caché directed by Michael Haneke, 2005:

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 (French title: Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte – 1884) parallels Caché, not just in terms of the flat, observational framing, but in the notion of objects and ideas "hidden" within the frame; the symbol of the monkey on the leash, the shadow without a tree, the little girl in the glowing white dress who is painted rather than made up of the thousands upon thousands of tiny little dots; the fact that the picture could be seen as the reverse shot of Seurat's earlier painting, Bathers at Asnières (French title: Une Baignade, Asnières, 1884) creating a socio-political commentary, the bourgeois, as observed by the working classes; the haves and the have-nots.


Seurat comparison created by the blog author:

At the end, does it matter who sent the tapes, and for what purpose? Does the end justify the means? To illustrate the (seeming) unimportance of the whys and wherefores, Haneke leaves certain elements of the film vague; offering us hints to a back-story through disconnected flashback, while simultaneously having important information play out in long shot, devoid of clarification. At the end of the film it is left to the viewer to put the pieces into place, to think about what we've experienced and to ruminate around the importance of the characters, the commentary on looking and seeing (that cinema naturally presents) and the central reference to the Paris massacre of 1961. The more we watch and indeed, read-into the themes behind the film, then the more interesting and fascinating it all becomes; with the root of the drama and the ultimate presentation creating something that has the power to provoke thought and induce a response from its audience, in a way that is truly compelling.