Sun 31 Dec 2006
And, finally, my two favorite reviews of 2006. The top10 of 2006 starts tomorrow.
Michael Haneke’s new film, Cache, opens with a long static shot down an urban street. It’s not clear, at first, what’s going on, as little changes in the composition. The buildings along each side are an imposing presence, and our viewing placement is odd. Where exactly are we standing? A voice off-screen asks “Well?” and receives the reply of “Nothing.” And then suddenly the image “rewinds,” and we realize we’ve been watching a video of a street where nothing seems to be happening. We watch the scene again, this time picking up on little details of the mise en scene but still unsure of what we’re looking at. Why is someone videotaping this street in this way? What are we supposed to notice?
For Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), those questions have ominous implications. The mysterious videotape was left on their doorstep, and the non-descript scene is actually an amateur surveillance tape of their house. It’s an unsettling feeling, one that grows even worse when another tape appears, this time of their house at night. Georges goes to the police, but there’s nothing they can do. That doesn’t satisfy Georges and Anne, especially when yet another tape shows up, this one a tracking shot of their 12-year-old son Pierrot outside his school.
Haneke’s films are well known among cinephiles for their rigorous examination of bourgeois society and especially of the role of violence. His formal control is legendary, but the toughness of the material has often limited his audience. Cache (the English translation would be “Hidden”) should change that. Not only has he cast two of the best and most recognizable French actors, but the story is an old-fashioned thriller, as Georges and Anne try to hunt down the person (or people) who are threatening them and their son.
While the story might be more accessible, Haneke has lost none of his touch. As my friend Garth put it, the film is a master class on how to watch a film and what to look for. From that opening shot, whose long take forces the audience to adapt to Haneke’s rhythm, to the re-viewing of the shot that urges us to notice what we overlooked, to the scenes inside the house that grow more unsettling with each videotape and each conversation, Haneke compels us to watch with an attention we don’t usually bring to the movies. Early on in the film, after we’ve seen the early videotape a couple times, Haneke gives us a point-of-view shot, standing in the Laurents’ doorway looking back up the street. Like Georges and Anne, we’re trying to find the surveillance camera which must be somewhere, if only we could see it. Later, when we see another tape, taken from the same earlier location, we try to imagine the camera’s placement. Is it on top of a car? inside a mini-van? attached to a light pole?
That theme of camera placement becomes central to Cache’s larger themes. As Georges tries to imagine who could be behind the videotapes, he focuses on his childhood and an Algerian boy whom his family initially adopted and then sent away at Georges’s demand. The flashback point-of-view shots are striking, compelling, and just as unsettling as the early surveillance tapes. Haneke raises the point of how hard it is to stand in someone else’s shoes and yet how necessary if we’re going to see the world as it is. Haneke ties this theme to history by raising the events of October 17, 1961 when French police massacred dozens (maybe hundreds) of Algerians who were demonstrating for their homeland’s independence. That day has been almost completely whitewashed even in France. What is hidden? What is out in the open? How do we see? How do others see us?
It doesn’t take much of a leap to connect this earlier event to the current struggle between the West and the Islamic world. Georges comes to believe that this Arab boy (now a man) has a pathological hatred of his family. Is Georges right, or has he mis-read the situation? And even if Georges is correct, what should he do about it?
Lest you be put off by this political angle, the film is rich enough to support numerous interpretations. It can be read as a tale of a couple whose marriage, seemingly secure at first, starts to crumble when Georges can’t be honest with Anne and she starts doubting his every move. You can also see it as a story of class, as the Laurents, secure in their upper-middle-class (and elitist) milieu, are confronted with the lower-class society and people they’ve tried to avoid. Or you can enjoy the film as a simple thriller, as a family of three confront an ominous threat.
What you can’t do is stop watching. And as Haneke shows you how to watch, use those skills wisely, for the final shot is one of the most brilliant, if enigmatic, conclusions to a film you’ll ever see. You’ll be discussing that one with friends long after the movie’s done.
Cache: four 1/2, out of five
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