PRINT January 2006


Michael Haneke's Caché

I LIKE TO MAKE a simple distinction between a reviewer and a critic: The reviewer writes for those who haven’t seen a film, telling readers whether they shouldn’t and offering a fairly clear idea of what the film is and does; the critic assumes the reader has seen it, making a plot synopsis superfluous, and attempts to engage him or her in an imaginary dialogue about its content, its degree of success, its value. The great literary critic F. R. Leavis summed up very succinctly the ideal critical exchange: “This is so, isn’t it?” “Yes, but . . . ”

With the films of Michael Haneke, this principle assumes particular importance. The Viennese director has frequently denounced Hollywood cinema because it habitually constructs the spectator as passive: We lean back in our seats and have everything spelled out for us, the film leading us carefully from point to point. Haneke, on the contrary, insists that we be active participants: Nothing is spelled out; we are invited to think, to make connections, to solve the enigmas for ourselves rather than have them explained for us. This brings him into direct conflict with the reviewer: If we know the plot before we go into the cinema, an essential element of our experience has been destroyed from the outset. But many of my readers will not yet have had the opportunity to see Haneke’s new film, Caché (Hidden). As a partial solution to this problem, I offer here not a synopsis but a starting point, after which my analysis will give away as little as possible:

A bourgeois couple, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receive mysterious videotapes, accompanied by sinister but childlike sketches, that show they are being spied on. Georges, especially, reacts with a sense of bitter resentment and guilt and begins to have memory flashes and nightmares about a young Arab boy with blood on his face . . .

When Caché (Haneke’s ninth feature, and his fourth made in France) premiered at Cannes last May, several critics promptly labeled it “Hitchcockian.” Though the term obscures as much as it illuminates, it provides a useful point of entry.

Haneke’s acute awareness of Hitchcock is beyond question. But what he has taken from Hitchcock amounts to little more than basic plot features, from which he embarks on journeys fundamentally different in aim and nature: The murder in Benny’s Video (1992) recalls Psycho (similar placement—about a third of the way into the film—similar abruptness and shock, followed by a cleanup sequence); Funny Games (1997) relates obliquely to The Birds, which Hitchcock said was “about complacency” (Haneke’s young killers remain as inexplicable as the bird attacks, and the elder is even credited with having supernatural powers); and the mother-daughter relationship in The Piano Teacher (2001) bears a strong resemblance to that in Marnie. Caché is clearly linked to Rear Window, with “watching” replaced by “being watched,” the story now told from the viewpoint of the spied-on, though the “crime” is of a very different nature and its perpetrator couldn’t be arrested for it.

But in all other respects Haneke can be seen as the anti-Hitchcock. Hitch’s frequently expressed aim of “putting the audience through it” was consistently linked to identification techniques. The spectator of his films is drawn, helpless, into the narrative by enforced and intimate identification with a key character (James Stewart in Vertigo, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds); we see everything from a single viewpoint. Haneke, in direct contrast, forbids identification altogether; we look at, not with, the characters. Of his earlier films, perhaps Code Unknown (2000) reveals Haneke’s intentions in this regard most clearly. Almost every scene is centered on conflict between the characters, and the spectator is invited to participate in the ensuing tensions, remaining conscious of differing points of view, developing an awareness that is never a simple matter of “one is right, one is wrong” but that nevertheless compels us to take sides, moving toward an understanding of the difficulties of human intercourse. You cannot expect even to follow the plot intricacies of Caché if you are caught up in the narrative, and a simple, single identification is rendered impossible from the outset. This is true even though (unlike in Code Unknown) we are given an obvious possible identification figure, with whom we gradually learn just what is going on and why; but we are kept at a distance by the central character’s evasiveness, his refusal to share problems with his wife, his general lack of affection and consideration. We distrust him, and you can’t identify with a character you don’t trust.

Haneke’s dominant concern is with the bourgeoisie—its inner tensions, its perpetual uneasiness, its guilt, the despair that underlies and disturbs its complacency. The women in his films—excepting The Piano Teacher, which is in many respects the “odd film out” within Haneke’s oeuvre—are bourgeois wives, and the films analyze the falseness of their position, though with more sympathy than their husbands usually receive. These women are Haneke’s most sympathetic adult characters and his films’ conscience, but they are also essentially helpless: He understands that within a bourgeois family, whatever its token gestures toward equality, it is the husband who is ultimately in control—hence the ineffectuality of the women’s revolt. The wife in The Seventh Continent (1989) is complicit in the family’s group suicide until it is too late to prevent it. The pattern recurs in Benny’s Video, in the wife’s growing estrangement, and reaches its most explicit expression in Caché, when Anne’s repeated (and finally openly rebellious) protests at her exclusion are brutally dismissed. Her husband, Georges, however false his position, obstinately maintains his dominance.

Haneke is perhaps the most pessimistic of all great filmmakers. But insofar as there are positive values embodied in his films they are expressed, albeit tentatively, through the children. In The Seventh Continent it is the little girl’s scream when the fish tank is shattered and the fish lie gasping on the floor that abruptly expresses the enormity of what the parents are doing, stirring the mother’s conscience. In Benny’s Video, Benny’s decision to denounce his parents (and himself) to the police establishes the growth of a moral consciousness within a world that prefers to bury its horrors. Most strikingly, the young boy’s attempted self-immolation at the end of Time of the Wolf (2003) signals the approach of a train that may or may not mean salvation. This recurring and developing motif receives perhaps its most remarkable enactment in the final shot of Caché (during which, sensing the imminence of the end credits, half the audience typically gets up and leaves, missing the film’s ultimate and crucial revelation, registered characteristically in distant long shot).

Every Haneke film represents a challenge to the spectator; his films demand the closest, most alert attention and repeated viewings (I began to feel confident that I had understood Caché somewhere around the third or fourth). This is not simply a matter of “following the plot”; it is also a matter of deciding exactly how we relate to each character, of assessing complex nuances of right and wrong, true and false; of delicate decisions as to where we stand in relation to morally complex issues. This ambiguity may have found its most elaborate expression in the multiple but interweaving plot lines of Code Unknown, but it is characteristic of all Haneke’s work. He shows us what the characters do and say, but he doesn’t nudge us (with, for example, editing, camera angles, suggestive music) into decisions about them. Judgment is left to us. They may be lying or concealing something; they may even be deceiving themselves. In Caché Haneke presents us with (1) some things we know must be true (because we see them happen); (2) some things shown as memories, which may have happened (memories can be false), though not necessarily quite as depicted in the flashbacks to childhood—the boy Majid with blood on his face (who appears twice, first as a memory, later as a nightmare, the setting of which is the home of the grandmother [Annie Girardot], where the boy can never have been), the beheading of the rooster; (3) some statements that may or may not be true (that neither Majid [Maurice Bénichou] nor his son knew anything about the videos—but at least one of them must have!); (4) an accusation (that Anne is having an affair) that is hotly and quite convincingly denied but that is not entirely out of the question; (5) a spectacular and dramatically staged suicide that may be the result of a lifetime of despair but that can also be read as a deliberate self-martyrdom meant to break down Georges’s complacency and punish him for the rest of his life; and (6) a revelation (in the end-credits shot) that actually reveals very little (are Anne and Georges’s son, Pierrot, and Majid’s son meeting for the first time? Has Pierrot participated in the plot against his parents all along? What exactly was his role—to deliver the videos? Was it Majid’s son who put it into Pierrot’s head that his mother was an adulteress? Did Pierrot draw the sketches that accompany the videos?). With almost any other filmmaker one might attribute all this to carelessness, or vagueness, but Haneke has established himself from the outset as an artist of impeccable precision and integrity: If an action is ambiguous or difficult to interpret, it is because so much in our lives is. Can we be sure that we always interpret the words and actions of even our intimate friends correctly?

The film’s central issue can be framed as a set of related questions: What exactly is the stature of the crime for which Georges is being punished, and is the punishment just? The “crime” appears to consist, strictly speaking, of two lies, perpetrated at the age of six: telling Majid that Georges’s father wanted him to behead the rooster, and telling his father that he’d seen Majid coughing up blood at night. The second lie has been exposed: The boy was examined by a doctor who found nothing wrong (but doctors have been known to make mistakes!). In any case, this lie appears to have sown seeds of doubt, leading Georges’s parents to opt out of their decision to adopt Majid, who consequently grew up in an orphanage. The obvious question that arises is, How great a burden of guilt can be placed on a six-year-old kid who can’t fully grasp the issues? There is, of course, more to it: Majid’s parents were presumed dead after participating in a pro-Algerian protest march in Paris that ended in the death of hundreds at the hands of the police. The lie of a young French child has been magnified into an emblem of French colonial guilt and has passed from the personal to the symbolic. The punishment has acquired a sense of poetic justice: Majid lost not only his own family but all hope of a secure life; the appropriate revenge is the disintegration of the liar’s family.

Many dislike Haneke’s films. They are too dark, too depressing, too cruel. Even at their close there is seldom cause for optimism and the future remains uncertain. (Where is Erika [Isabelle Huppert] going at the end of The Piano Teacher, after she stabs herself—carefully avoiding her heart—in the foyer of the theater? Is that train at the end of Time of the Wolf really coming to save the stranded? Is that final revelation in Caché a sign that Georges’s punishment has only just begun?) But to me, Haneke is perhaps the most important European filmmaker currently active (and we are in the midst of something like a renaissance: consider the recent work of Claire Denis, André Téchiné, Patrice Chéreau, Laurent Cantet, and the Dardennes brothers). It’s true that his view of humanity—and specifically his view of the “civilized” world of today—is discouraging in the extreme, but it is now impossible to dismiss his pervasive pessimism. With the seemingly inexorable spread of global corporate capitalism and the United States’ blatant bid for world domination, even the most tentative optimism has come to seem naive. Haneke’s uncompromisingly bleak and astringent—and totally unhysterical—criticism of human duplicity and inauthenticity carries, within such a context, a strongly positive charge. And surely in Caché the pessimism is qualified by that last shot, echoing the end of Benny’s Video (in which the boy betrays his own father, an act that Haneke courageously sees as justified) and suggesting the possibility of collaboration, revolution, and renewal within the younger generation. The film’s remarkable topicality scarcely seems to require comment.

Robin Wood is the author of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond (1985), Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), and, most recently, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (2002; All Columbia University Press).

Caché is currently playing at theaters in New York and Los Angeles.