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.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Tropical Malady

Moments that stir the soul: The gold noon sun of the opening sequence; the body and the music; the camera brushing through the tall green grass as if presenting the perspective of another; the shape shifter that intrudes upon the scene and watches, silently, from the periphery; the figure that wanders naked into the empty frame; the song and the cinema; the moped ride that brings to mind the vacant drifting into night of Catherine Deneuve's 'Marie' in Pola X (1999); the underground shrine; the stories within stories; the questions of love, with its mysteries and conspiracies; the spirit of the animal returning to the forest; the lights in the trees; the eyes of the beast burning brightly in the dark.

These waning moments that bewitch us like that "strange creature" on the spirit's path, who beguiles us with its otherworldly presence; plays games with us, forces us to pursue it through the darkened forest until we're lost, like the trapper in the clearing, where the branches hang down like the talons of an out-stretched claw.


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

That Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) is defined by these moments is in no way a criticism. Its bare plot, which spins two seemingly separate stories with much room for individual interpretation, feels at times like a blank canvas. We project ourselves onto it by bringing our own interests and emotional perspectives; seeing a creation of love or revulsion, devotion or obsession, depending on our own individual personalities. As a result, the film remains vague, elusive even; challenging the audience to think themselves through the film, to ponder its great mysteries and construct the plot in hindsight from the similarities that are formed by both parts of the narrative.

In its construction, the film is characteristic of at least two other films from its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul - the earlier Blissfully Yours (Sud sanaeha, 2002) and the subsequent Syndromes and a Century (Sang satawă, 2006) - in which the narrative is built upon a series of differences and distinctions that form in the back of the spectator's mind during the act of viewing; only really making sense as we connect them back to one another as the credits begin to roll. It is only then, at the end of the film, that the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Then, and only then, can we step back from it, squint out a meaning and make the required leap to connect both ends of the narrative together; to see these characters and their representations as either "different sides of the same story", or different stories that convey the same theme.

In the first half of the film we are introduced to the characters Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee); two young men beginning a furtive relationship against a largely social realist backdrop of contemporary, rural Thailand. These scenes are captured by Weerasethakul in a distant, observational approach that makes great use of handheld close-ups, static-long-shots, cutaways and the natural landscape. This approach to technique gives the film a distinctive quality; off-kilter, almost surreal, but developed in a time and a place that is entirely tangible. Likewise, the relationship that is depicted here is incredibly well defined; recalling the more tender moments of Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) from Wong Kar-wai's excellent film, Happy Together (Chūn guāng zhà xiè, 1997) as we witness these two characters, like close friends more than anything, bond over the lush, green panorama of the surrounding countryside, or the chaos of the city.


Happy Together directed by Wong Kar-wai, 1997:


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

These aspects are then perfectly contrasted by the second part of the film, in which an unnamed trapper, dressed in an army combat uniform and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, stalks a naked man through the forest. The man, who supposedly has the power to channel the spirit of a long-dead shaman, has been killing livestock and wreaking havoc throughout the adjacent towns and villages. The trapper eventually follows the man into a clearing within the woods - where he becomes hypnotised by the mad, glowing eyes of a tiger-like creature - leading to the film's climactic moment of thought-provoking transcendence.


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

In order to better understand the workings of Tropical Malady we must first look at the parallels between these two stories and the subtle similarities that lead us to form the ultimate distinctions between them. A question: in the first story, is it important that Keng is a soldier; the opening scene introducing him alongside a small platoon, photographing and posing with an unidentified dead body? This body, at first as jarring and confusing as the string of sequences that immediately follow and establish the relationship between our two main protagonists, will eventually develop into something of a far greater significance as the film approaches its final act. Likewise, is it also important that Keng is granted something of a more conventional introduction - establishing certain traits of his characters, his leisure activities and the symbol of death that will be further implied throughout - whilst the introduction to Tong (if we can even call it that) remains, in comparison, something far more provocative and unclear.

Glimpsed in a wavering long-shot and obscured by the rolling fields, Tong wanders naked into the scene, pausing, as if to highlight his imposed centrality within the film at this early stage of the narrative; adding a kind of context to that previous shot, which seemed to suggest the POV of some voyeuristic creature stalking stealthily, as Keng and his soldier friends make their way back to base.


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Throughout the film, it is Tong that remains enigmatic; a seemingly simple villager who works at a factory cutting large blocks of ice, or alternatively, walks the town in Keng's uniform attempting (we can only assume) to experience the general monotony of his friend's everyday existence (?). He is a character that often seems pensive or removed; even during the idyllic sequences as the two characters sit and stare, watch the cabaret singer or fondle one-another in a fleapit cinema. To quote from the essay by Asian Cinema expert Tony Rayns that is featured in the accompanying booklet of the Second Run DVD release of the film, "there is a clear implication [in these short scenes] that there's more to Tong than meets the eye. Hidden depths? A dark side?" Of course, it is in these questions that the further implicit meaning behind the character and his intentions becomes more clearly defined, especially as the film approaches its mid-narrative split.


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Here, the characters meet one last time by the side of the road, and there, under a flickering street light, embrace one another, passionately. Afterwards, Tong walks silently into the shadows as Keng rides his moped back home, quiet and content. In the next scene, Keng gazes at a selection of old photographs as an off-screen conversation alludes to a recent spate of animal killings. Someone (or something?) is torturing the livestock.

That Weerasethakul chooses to end the first part of the film with such a moment goes a long way to establishing a link between the two stories and the central contrast between his characters. In one sense, it creates the kind of peculiar similarity that eventually defines the film; similarities, not just between the two-act structure and the back and forth shift from a social-realist approach to one more befitting of the term magical realism, but in the design of the film; it's characters and contradictions. Even the title presents a kind of dual significance; the contrasts between the world "tropical" - with its connotations of escape; the warm summer sun and those endless afternoons that suspend us in time - and "malady", which establishes a darker, more serious thread of interpretation, suggesting sickness; the fear and the hopelessness still to come. It also suggests a more playful significance with the obvious pun of the title: a "tropical melody", recalling the song that is performed midway through the film in front of a gaudy-coloured paradise facade, rich in what Rayns calls "an evocation of half-forgotten Hollywood exotica".


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

However, once again, the question remains: can the film be seen as two individual stories, presented with their own credit-sequences, visuals styles and dramatic preoccupations, or is it a film of two halves converging in a single whole?

This leads us to the films' biggest question; the nature of the malady itself? Is the "malady" Tong's ability to embody the spirit of the shaman, causing him to transform from that enigmatic cipher into a kind of mythical predator, whose gaze holds the secrets of existence? Or is it in fact Keng's love for the "sud pralad" - the "monster" leading him into the forest - that defines the titular affliction at the heart of these two tales? If we choose the former, then the contrasts and similarities that are suggested by the composition of the two portions of the narrative can be dismissed as just that; ironic commentaries on the juxtaposition of a (largely) social-realist relationship-drama and a sort of Apocalypto (2006) style jungle-adventure. However, if we choose the latter interpretation, then the film takes on a variety of substantial readings and interpretations that can be found in looking at the two distinct segments and then tracing a line back through them.

A line - like the one on the wall of Lars von Trier's apartment in the head-scratching film-within-a-film meta-horror, Epidemic (1987) - that connects the two narrative territories; where one is a love story and the other a story of survival.


Epidemic directed by Lars von Trier, 1987:


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

It is in these contrasts and comparisons that we find the drama and the beauty in these situations, as the two stories are placed against one another, disconnect and yet (seemingly) connected, with the same two actors playing different characters who become representations of the other; one becoming the metaphor and the other the reality, though never with clarification. Whichever way we choose to interpret it, the film, as a whole, remains a tremendous experience; a drama centred on the very basic emotions of love and longing, fear and confusion, memory and reflection, and yet... a film unlike anything we've ever experienced.

An exasperating film, where each cut, each scene, each line of dialog is evocative of something. That almost "film as prose" approach to deconstruction, as one image leads into another image - words into words, ideas into ideas - all being traced back and forth from one story into the next, as the two lovers, the hunter and the hunted, become an extension of the same thing. Once again, the development here is in keeping with the general style of Weerasethakul's work; his interest in memories and moments and how the two sides of the story - divided and yet linked by deep emotions - come to create something of a recognisable whole.

It is the memory that defines the existence of the monster, not simply in the minds of the audience, but in the mind of the central character; as the creature is described by (of all things) a talking monkey, who communicates with the trapper and explains the intricacies of a situation that might be real or might be fantasy. The monkey says: "Let him devour you, and in turn, enter his world", as Weerasethakul's editing (both in and around these scenes) becomes more and more fragmented; suggesting the imagined scenarios of the trapper still lost in the tree line, rootless, into sleep.


Tropical Malady directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004:

Moments like these may at first seem confusing, apparently offering us no immediate sense of cohesion as we strain to find meaning in the scenes of endless roving; as the characters simply sit, watch, interact, envelope one another within a soft embrace and ponder the complexities of their existence. However, as the film edges ever nearer to that thought-provoking final scene - as the themes from both halves of the film become one, forcing us to realise how deeply the implications of these moments reach, how clearly they are defined by the director - we see a new story develop before our very eyes; spun from the connection of these moments and the emotional connection therein.

Beyond this kind of broad, cut and paste reading, it is difficult to really deconstruct or comprehend Tropical Malady on any kind of deeper, theoretical or even analytical level; with the contrast between the two strands of the narrative and the way we choose to look at them simply proving to be too personal, too arcane. The whole thing, like much of Weerasethakul's work becomes as enigmatic as the daubings on a Rothko canvas. We can see the dividing line, the point at which one colour blurs into the next, and yet the experience feels complete.

Apart from where one story ends and the other begins, Weerasethakul is able to draw us into his mystery and into the dynamics of this (these?) relationship(s); where the meeting place between Thai neo-realism and the adventure serials of the author Noi Inthanon is subverted and explored in order to create images of lasting greatness. Beyond that, we're lost in the flow, in the heat and the spring, the exotic adventure and mysterious movement between worlds; where the whole thing becomes steeped in a kind of fever dream-sense and unearthly atmosphere, defined by those moments that stir the soul and capture the imagination.