To discuss Michael Haneke’s much-praised Caché is to rob it of something that seems essential. In introducing the movie, you need to start with the opening, but describing that shot means that the reader won’t have the experience of seeing it fresh, of being confused and baffled and frustrated by it.
Being the kind sort, I don’t want you to be confused, baffled, or frustrated. I want you to be enlightened. So if you wish to be spoiled (enlightenment is in no way guaranteed), read on. If you prefer to be confused, baffled, and frustrated, go into the movie blind.
What’s unfortunate (or very, very clever) about Caché is that Haneke has created a movie that requires such intensive decoding at its terminals that it’s easy to overlook the rest of the movie — to, in fact, miss its entire point. By spending so much time and effort on the beginning and the ending, we neglect essential questions: What is the film trying to say? Is this an effective way to communicate that message?
Writers better than I have used words such as “bourgeois” and “diegesis” to explain Caché on psychological and political levels. Those elements certainly exist, but they’re lost in the movie’s self-satisfied trickery. The film’s difficulty, and the teasing way it flirts with a plausible solution to its mystery, undermine its obvious core purpose.
1. The Beginning
The opening shot of Caché lasts for more than three minutes. It shows a residential neighborhood, and the camera does not move or in any way reveal what you’re supposed to pay attention to. The three-dimensional reality of the depicted space is several blocks deep, but as a two-dimensional image it’s densely cluttered, compressed; the eye roams, looking for something to watch. As a viewer, you’re uneasy, because you fear that by searching you’re missing something important.
The opening credits roll out on top of this image. They are not presented in the traditional way — one after the other — but as a mass of barely differentiated text. Again, the person watching the movie is unsettled, unable to focus and feeling stupid for it.
And that is the effect for which Haneke strives. He wants you to be just like his main characters, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche). They are married and have a sullen teenage son (more on him in a bit), and they are watching what the movie’s audience is watching. And they are confused, baffled, and frustrated by it. This is a videotape that was left for them in front of their door.
They are also scared, because the videotape shows their home. It’s right there behind that big bush, not quite centered, about three-quarters the way down the frame. Take a look at the first picture. There’s a woman leaving the house, behind the gate to the left of the bush. That’s Anne.
So that’s the opening shot, and the movie’s central mystery. Who made the tape? And why?
Initially, Caché appears to be a commentary on surveillance culture, a world in which our lives are recorded in minute detail by cameras, through financial transactions, and through the digital crumbs we leave virtually wherever we go. Privacy, the movie seems to claim, no longer exists.
Yet it does. The sheer volume of information that we leave means that we remain hidden, like any one person in that glut of opening credits, or like any particular detail in that opening shot. There’s too much undifferentiated stuff to feel like we’re being meaningfully monitored.
Unless, of course, somebody targets you. What’s chilling about Caché is the idea that somebody would have the skill, time, money, access, and motivation to collect that information about an individual.
2. The Ending
To talk about Caché, one must also deal with the closing shot, which lasts more than four minutes. The closing credits roll over it, giving the false impression that there’s nothing to see here, unless you’re the type of person who waits to see if even arty foreign films offer parting gag reels.
The helpful critic must plant the seed that the reader should pay particular attention to this final shot, perhaps even pointing out where on the screen they should look. Something does happen. Watch for that sullen teenage boy. To whom is he talking? Not the group of friends with whom he exits the school, but the person who walks up to him, chats with him, and leaves.
Surely, sullen boy doesn’t know that person, does he?
And does that mean that ... ?
Give Haneke credit: What he does with the movie’s final shot is tantalizing.
But it’s also meaningless, because the audience is left with incomplete information. Hell, the audience is left with virtually no information, merely the evidence that on this particular day, these two people seemed to be acquaintances.
How disparate are the potential reasonable readings?
- Sullen boy and the other person are conspirators.
- Sullen boy and the other person are merely friendly with each other, suggesting that the sins of the father do not stain the son.
- Sullen boy is being photographed, just like his father.
The truth, you see, is hidden. Deep, huh?
3. The Middle
The genius of Haneke’s conceit is that the surveillance of Georges and Anne is so ... ordinary. He has tapped into the reality that a person targeting you wouldn’t actually need skill, time, money, or access to spook the shit out of you. All they’d need to do is provide evidence that you specifically are being watched. For example: by pointing a video camera at the front of your house and leaving the videotape on your doorstep.
This simple and inexpensive act has the power to unlock deep paranoia. Caché haunts the audience because it initially shows how something so fundamentally benign can unravel us.
The tape inspires in Georges guilt, as he goes through in his head a list of all those he has wronged. He quickly settles on a childhood acquaintance as the suspect with the best motive.
This is a perfectly reasonable process, but Haneke gooses it: Georges is pushed toward his conclusion by new videotapes that arrive on his doorstep. One shows his childhood home. Another reveals the location of an apartment. They are wrapped in ghoulish but youthfully crude drawings. Georges’ tormentor, it would appear, doesn’t merely want to unsettle our protagonist; he seems to be leading him toward a confrontation with his past.
Caché here starts to leach its potential as an expression of common anxiety in the new millennium. Haneke doesn’t trust his own elegance, and replaces effectively anonymous surveillance with something personal.
While the first tape was upsetting mostly because virtually anybody could have created it, these later tapes and their wrappers require an intimate knowledge of Georges’ life. In fact, there are only two people with the information the deliveries would seem to require: Georges, and the young Algerian his family took in.
What’s intentionally maddening about this path is that neither alternative seems likely. Caché is far too grounded and restrained to invoke the literal, gothic dualities of Poe’s “William Wilson” or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it’s evident to all but Georges that the feeble man he knew as a child is incapable — temperamentally or technologically — of making the tapes. (He is capable of causing great harm, but it’s of a different sort.)
The movie’s ending suggests a third alternative, but there’s no apparent motive for such an elaborate — and mean — trick, and the knowledge required seems too shameful (on both ends) to be passed down to the younger generation.
All three possible explanations are plausible. None is plausible enough.
And so Haneke leaves us with ... nothing?
4. The Pointlessness of It All
Does it matter from where or whom the tapes come?
As one blogger wrote:
“Like all the great Hitchcock films, these videotapes are a MacGuffin and are pretty inconsequential in terms of what the film is actually ‘about.’”
Fair enough, but that explanation seems counterintuitive. If the tapes are merely meant to get the plot rolling, why does Haneke emphasize them so, from the first shot through the last, and in the way the entire movie is photographed?
As Wikipedia notes in its entry on the MacGuffin:
“Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in significance as the struggles and motivations of the characters take center stage.”
This clearly doesn’t happen in Caché. The author of the tapes remains the central concern of the film through its final moment. Most of the discussion of the movie unsurprisingly focuses on the ending.
Yet Haneke’s agenda is much larger than the tapes. Obviously, Caché is meant to operate in part as metaphor. Georges represents the French, and the Algerian represents, well, Algerians living in Paris. The guilt Georges feels represents the guilt of the French people for the Paris massacre of 1961. Haneke makes the connection explicit, as the Algerian boy’s parents died in the event, and Georges’ family planned to adopt him.
A simplistic reading would suggest that the French deserve to be reminded (through the tape) of the massacre — that the guilt is warranted, and that adequate amends have not been made. A more nuanced (and not necessarily incompatible) interpretation says that current French foreign policy toward Algieria (in the form of Georges’ bad behavior toward the Algerian) is poisoned by this unallayed guilt. (Full disclosure: I know nothing of French domestic or foreign policy then or now.)
Setting aside the strangeness of a German pot (that would be Haneke) faulting the French kettle for a mid-20th Century atrocity, this still gets us no closer to understanding the source of the tape. The blunt politics might make Caché more resonant and pointed, particularly for French audiences, but it doesn’t illuminate the mystery, or even fit with it.
The film’s fixation on the tapes could be justified if the lack of resolution dovetailed with its themes, or even if the impossibility of a definitive (or merely probable) solution were confirmed. But the film is not nearly so agnostic.
If the movie were about the impossibility of knowing, or the elusiveness of truth, it might make sense for the mystery to remain intact. But the movie is fundamentally about guilt and the way it makes people behave. Georges does withhold information from his wife, but outside of the tapes’ source, the audience is given relatively full information whose veracity is never cast into doubt.
The emphasis on the opening and closing shots detracts attention from the themes and points Haneke clearly wants to stress. And because the writer/director continually suggests that you can solve this mystery — if only you pay close enough attention — he regularly distracts the audience from his message.
The tapes are superfluous. So what does it say about a movie when the MacGuffin captures the audience’s imagination far more than the film’s serious themes? Caché is so in love with its formal brilliance and cleverness that it forgets what it’s about.